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.
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.
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
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
Arthur Asa. Scripts: Writing For Radio And Television. Newbury
Park, California: Sage, 1990.
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.
Richard A. Television Writing: From Concept To Contract.
Boston: Focal Press, 1995.
Ben. The Understructure Of Writing For Film And Television.
Austin: University of Texas Press, 1988.
Maggio, Madeline. How to Write for Television. New York:
Prentice Hall, 1990.
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.
Jim. "How Writers Survive." The Journal (Los Angeles), Writers
Guild of America West, January 1994.
Dennis. Seeing the Blossom: Two Interviews, A Lecture, and a
Story. London and Boston: Faber and Faber, 1994.
Wells. Writing The Script: A Practical Guide For Films And Television.
New York: Holt, Rinehart, and Winston, 1980.
Tom. Storytellers To The Nation: A History Of American Television
Writing. New York: Continuum, 1992.
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,
See also Chayefsky,
Plante, Lynda; Mercer,