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

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.

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).

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"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.

Audiences sometimes need to be reminded that their favorite characters and story lines aren't improvised by the actors, says Jessica Klein, a former board member of the WGA. "They are crafted and written," she says. The growth of so-called "unscripted" material such as game shows and reality programs has accelerated the marginalization of writers, says Ms. Klein.

In the past three years, the rise of the nonwriting producer has usurped her creative position, she says, adding she used to pitch her ideas personally to the network. These days she goes first to a producer, who then presents the whole "package," which includes stars and directors. Sometimes the producers are managers," says Klein, "they have lots of power. It signifies the deal is as important if not more [so] than the content."

With the handwriting on the wall, a tiny but steadily growing number of WGA members are exploring the possibilities many see in the world of Internet and mobile-phone entertainment. The aptly named Strike.TV, conceived in the heat of the WGA strike, launched Oct. 28. Ms. Harris bankrolled her first effort, "Life in General," a 15-minute, two-part pilot about life behind the scenes of a soap opera, to the tune of $8,000. She hired friends who deferred their salaries, shot the entire story in two days, and is now the proud owner of her own work – a first for this lifelong writer-for-hire.

"I feel like an entrepreneur," she says. "It's a whole new sensation, one that I like. And one that I could never have had in the world of network TV as it is today."

Of course, the economics of the Internet are in their infancy. But even writers who have successful careers are hedging their bets. "The industry has been good to me," says Lester Lewis, a writer with the title of consulting producer on NBC's "The Office." He clocks into the show three days a week, which leaves him time to experiment. "I like the fantasy about the future of this industry," he says.

Mr. Lewis was one of the group that jump-started Strike.TV. His pilot, "House Poor," which cost him $12,000 to produce, is currently courting sponsors while it streams on the site. "When you work for the networks, you have to pitch to please someone else," he says. "But with the Internet, it's all your own production. I find it very exciting and liberating."

The opportunities of the new media world may inspire and empower beleaguered TV writers, but ironically, some critics bemoan what one calls the further degradation of the written word. "The Internet favors short, highly visual content," says Christopher Sharrett, professor of communication and film studies at Seton Hall University in New York, but this is only an extension of a far larger trend away from the literate narratives that graced the early days of television. "We are moving further and further away from good writing into a culture of the present with a highly visual orientation, with no sense of connection to great traditions of the past," says Mr. Sharrett.

We ignore our writers at our peril, he says, citing the wisdom of television pioneer Edward R. Murrow. Television has the potential to be one of the greatest tools for the education and uplift of mankind, says Sharrett, who also quotes Murrow's caution to his peers, or "it can just become a box full of bright lights."

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