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TV's shifting landscape leaves scriptwriters in a pinch

Unscripted shows and foreign imports squeeze writers, some of whom look to Internet as new outlet.

By Staff writer of The Christian Science Monitor / December 12, 2008

Studio city, Calif.

As the combination of NBC's decision to replace its 10 p.m. scripted dramas with a talk-show format and a threatened actors' strike throw a chill over tinseltown, Marley-like voices from the writers' walkout that shut down Hollywood last Christmas are telling cautionary tales.

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The industry has already been battered by the estimated $2.1 billion impact of the 100-day writers' strike that ended in February. Now, everyone from top showrunners (usually writer/creators who've become top producers) to the daytime scribes, say times in the television industry, long considered the writer's medium, are getting tougher.

"It is a particularly difficult time," says veteran showrunner J.J. Abrams, noting that as networks turn to shows from overseas as well as remakes of old shows to save costs, he feels "lucky" to have an original show on the fall schedule ("Fringe" on Fox).

"It's always hard, but it's getting harder," says Bryan Fuller, creator and showrunner of ABC's "Pushing Daisies." When the show returned after the strike-imposed hiatus, he says, the network made budget cuts as well as numerous requests to make the story less "weird." Whether you are a prime-time, A-list writer such as Steven Bochco, who has migrated from broadcast networks to cable in pursuit of creative freedom, or a daytime soap opera scribe such as Karen Harris, who grinds out an 80-to-90-page "General Hospital" script every week, the challenges facing the nation's small-screen storytellers are the same: dwindling clout, an industry in historic transition, and a larger economy in tatters.

Individual network heads such as Angela Bromstad, the new programming chief for NBC, often voice their respect for writers. "I've always been very protective of showrunners' vision and passion," she says. "If it's not led by their passion, then we don't have a show."

But business trumps passion, more often than not these days, says Patric Verrone, president of the Writers' Guild of America, West (WGAW). "In an era of motion picture and TV production controlled by seven multinational conglomerates, it's difficult for any individual to have clout or personal creative freedom," he says. "When it's in the hands of the conglomerates there is a lack of appreciation not just of writers but of the entire talent community and what they bring to

the table in terms of development of content." While a decade ago, networks had scores of writers under contract in what Mr. Verrone dubs a form of R&D, no such deals exist today, he says.

This week's decision by NBC to shake up the 50-year-old definition of prime-time programming by moving late-night host Jay Leno to 10 p.m. underlines a deeper industry trend. "The paradigm of Hollywood is fundamentally shifting," says Darrell Miller, an entertainment lawyer and longtime industry observer. "You can almost make an analogy that it is as big a shift as from the buggy to the automobile or the candle to electricity." As the large media companies scramble for profits in the new digital landscape of the Internet and mobile phones, "it is the writers, directors, and other talent who are feeling the pinch," he says.