WRITER IN TELEVISION

A commonplace in the television industry is that "it all begins with the script." In part, this notion recognizes the centrality of writers in the early days of live television, when authors such as Reginald Rose, Paddy Chayevsky and Rod Serling established the medium as an arena for the exploration of character, psychology, and moral complexity in close intimate settings. With the television industry's move to Hollywood in the 1950s, and its increasing reliance on filmed, formulaic, studio factory productions, writers were often reduced to "hack" status, churning out familiar material that was almost interchangeable across genres. This week's western could be reformatted for next week's crime drama. This view oversimplifies, of course, and ignores extraordinary work in television series such as Naked City, The Defenders, Route 66 and others. But it does capture conventional assumptions and expectations.

In the 1970s, with the rise of socially conscious situation comedy often identified with producer Norman Lear and the "quality" comedies associated with MTM Productions, writers once again moved to positions of prominence. Lear himself was a writer-producer, one of the many "hyphenates" who would follow into positions of authority and control. And Grant Tinker, head of MTM, sought out strong writers and encouraged them to create new shows--and new types of shows--for television. Indeed, the legacy of MTM stands strong in today's television industry. Names such as James Brooks, Alan Burns, Steven Bochco, David Milch, and others can trace their careers to that company.

At the present time almost every major producer in American television is also a writer. Writers oversee series development and production, create new programs, and see to the coordination and conceptual coherence of series in progress. Their skills are highly valued and, for the very successful few, extremely highly rewarded. Never the less, the role of the writer is affected by many other issues, and despite new respect and prominence, remains a complex, often conflicted position within the television industry.

The film and television industries, for example, have been, until quite recently, very separate entities. Even in the early years of television writers were recruited not from film but from radio and the theater. In many ways, the environment for writers in television still remains distinct from that of the film industry. TV writers are quick to remark that it is nearly impossible to start out in television and move on to film, but that there are no barriers to moving in the other direction--it is, rather, a fact that writers in the film industry will not write television "unless they are starving." This belief summarizes a power relationship in which writers are clearly identified as either "television" or "film," or even by genre, early in their careers. One important difference lies in the common perception that writers in television have more clout, simply because there is a well-defined career path by which writers can move up through the ranks of a production company to become a senior producer and therefore control their work in ways typically denied to film scriptwriters.

An interesting aspect of writing for television is the hierarchical organization of the profession. Many production companies now employ "staff writers," although most TV writers work as freelancers competing for a diminishing number of assignments. At the bottom of the pyramid are the outside freelancers who may write no more than two or three episodes a season for various shows. At the top are the producers and executive producers. In between are readers, writer's assistants, a handful of junior staff writers (with contracts of varying lengths), and assistant and associate producers. Producer titles are often given to writers and are usually associated with seniority and supervisory responsibilities for a writing team. The desirable career path, then, involves moving from freelancer, to staff writer, to associate producer, to supervising producer to executive producer. Executive producers are given sole responsibility for controlling a television series, are usually owners or part owners of the series, and may work on several series at once.

Writers usually become executive producers by creating their own series. But this generally occurs only after writing successfully in other positions, and after being recognized by studio and network executives as someone with the potential to create and control a series. Only in the rarest of circumstances are new program ideas purchased or developed from freelancers or beginning writers.

Readers are a critical element in a freelance television writer's working life, because they control whether or not one's work reaches senior staff with hiring authority. Readers analyze samples of a writer's work and evaluate the appropriateness of a writer's skills, experience, and background for the series, and they are used routinely as a "first cut" mechanism throughout the industry. The criteria used by readers is often very specific, sometimes seemingly arbitrary, but because of their importance TV writers learn to "write to the reader" in order to advance to the next assessment level. An entire subordinate industry exists in Los Angeles to educate writers about the process and criteria reviewers employ, even though readers describe themselves as without significant influence.

Agents are also a fact of a television writer's life because production companies and their readers generally will not consider any work from a writer unless it is submitted by an agent, preferably an agent known to that production company. A common frustration for writers is that agents refuse to represent writers without credits but credits cannot be earned without agent representation.

The Writer's Guild Of America (WGA) founded in 1912 is the official trade union and collective bargaining unit for writers in the film and television industries and actively monitors working conditions for writers. The WGA has warned that contemporary writers face a hostile environment with ageism and sexism a common complaint. Hollywood is enamored with youth culture and consequently producers and network executives often seek creative talent they feel will be capable of addressing that audience. According to WGA statistics, a definite bias toward younger writers has emerged in the industry. In addition, the WGA and another organization, Women in Film, recently released reports showing that although women comprise 25% of the Hollywood writing pool they receive a smaller share of assignments proportional to their number. Although there are several prominent female writers and producers in television many industry observers believe that there are structural and cultural barriers to the advancement of women throughout the industry that cannot be easily removed.

 

Because the production of most television shows (prior to syndication sales) must be "deficit-financed" (network payment for the rights to the series is less than the cost to produce the episodes) writers often bear the brunt of the resulting financial insecurity, taking less cash upfront in salary or per-episode fees and hoping for healthy residuals if the series becomes successful. Although the WGA sets minimum payments for each type of writing assignment writers are often seen at the popular "Residuals Bar" in Van Nuys where a residuals check for $1 or less earns the bearer a free drink. 70% of television writers earn less than S50,000 a year through their efforts in this field. In spite of this harsh reality, hundreds of aspiring writers write thousands of new scripts each year, hoping for the chance to write the next huge hit.

In other television systems writers continue to enjoy a similar sort of prestige. Television authors such as Dennis Potter and Lynda La Plante have offered audiences outstanding, often formally challenging work for this medium. Because of their work as well as because of the American system's financial and aesthetic rewards, television writing is now perhaps recognized as a truly legitimate form of creativity, and has taken its place alongside the novel, the stage play, and the film screenplay as one of the most central expressive forms of the age.

-Cheryl Harris

FURTHER READING

Berger, Arthur Asa. Scripts: Writing For Radio And Television. Newbury Park, California: Sage, 1990.

Bielby, William T. and Denise D. Bielby. The 1989 Hollywood Writers' Report: Unequal Access, Unequal Pay. West Hollywood, California: The Writers Guild of America, West, 1989.

Blum, Richard A. Television Writing: From Concept To Contract. Boston: Focal Press, 1995.

Brady, Ben. The Understructure Of Writing For Film And Television. Austin: University of Texas Press, 1988.

Di Maggio, Madeline. How to Write for Television. New York: Prentice Hall, 1990.

DiTillio, Lawrence G. "'I Hate Stories.' Script Is easy. Story Is hard." Writer's Digest (Cincinnati, Ohio), June 1994.

_______________. "Scripting a Sample 'Seinfeld.'" Writer's Digest (Cincinnati, Ohio), December 1993.

Macak Jim. "How Writers Survive." The Journal (Los Angeles), Writers Guild of America West, January 1994.

Potter, Dennis. Seeing the Blossom: Two Interviews, A Lecture, and a Story. London and Boston: Faber and Faber, 1994.

Root, Wells. Writing The Script: A Practical Guide For Films And Television. New York: Holt, Rinehart, and Winston, 1980.

Stempel, Tom. Storytellers To The Nation: A History Of American Television Writing. New York: Continuum, 1992.

Straczynski, J. Michael. "The TV Commandments." Writer's Digest (Cincinnati, Ohio), April 1992.

Walter, Richard. Screenwriting : The Art, Craft, And Business Of Film And Television Writing. New York: New American Library, 1988.

 

See also Chayefsky, Paddy; Bochco, Steven; Huggins, Roy; La Plante, Lynda; Mercer, David; Potter, Dennis; Rose, Reginald; Serling, Rod; Silliphant, Sterling; Tarses, Jay