In Hollywood, it's not just the actors who lie about age

TV's writers say age bias is rampant - and sue to change it.

In hushed phone conversations, at the water cooler, in restaurants and elevators, the stories that began as a trickle have become a flood.

* "My husband turns 40 in four years and is going to shave his beard to look younger," says a television PR executive.

* "She's been successful for so long, but she found out she had a gray hair and is now hitting the bottle," says another. "Not booze you understand - hair color."

* "Ted's going in for a few facial nips and tucks," says a third.

In a twist of irony over youth obsession in America's television dream factory, these accounts are not about actors fretting over on-camera looks. They are concerns of the unseen talents who dream up the plots of TV sitcoms and dramas - writers. And the concern about age is not cosmetic: It's job preservation.

Now a federal lawsuit filed by Hollywood writers, alleging widespread age discrimination, is casting light on the inner workings of an industry that puts a premium on attracting young viewers. If successful, it not only could change hiring practices here, but set precedents for age discrimination in other industries.

"The answer is yes, absolutely, for sure: It's pervasive," says Paul Levine, a 52-year-old former lawyer, eight-time novelist, and now writer for NBC's "JAG," when asked if he sees a wide pattern of age bias across the television industry.

Besides attempts to look younger, writers' growing response to a growing problem here has been to lie about age and to lop off leading credits from resumes because they betray the job seeker's age, say Mr. Levine and others. "The practice comes from a misguided notion [among top executives] that, in order to attract young audiences, ... you need young writers," says Levine.

The class-action suit filed last week on behalf of 28 writers alleges a "pervasive pattern of age discrimination" by the TV industry. The writers have authored some of TV's most successful shows - such as "All in the Family," "Maude," and "Knots Landing." The suit represents as many as 7,000 writers over 40 who allege their careers were hurt by ageism in all top network and production studios.

"It's no secret that in the mid-1980s most of the studios and networks ... decided they were going to go after bigger advertising dollars by appealing to younger audiences," says Paul Sprenger, lead attorney for those suing.

The writers' complaint alleges that the late Brandon Tartikoff, president of programming at NBC, announced a policy of not hiring any writer over 30. It says David Goldberg, an ABC producer, stated that "Spin City" would have "no writers on the set over age 29." And it claims that Marta Kauffman, producer of "Friends," has said that older writers are not hired for the show because after 40 they can no longer "do it."

The 81-page complaint, filed in federal district court here, also refers to a 1998 report commissioned by the Writers Guild of America. Among the findings:

* That year, 7 in 10 writers of episodic comedies were under 40, though they made up only 42 percent of all writers available. Thirty-one percent of all writers are over 50, but they hold only 5 percent of the jobs.

* Nineteen series during the 1990-91 season employed no writers over 50. By the 1997-98 season, 77 series included no older writers - about two-thirds of the total aired.

* Between 1982 and 1998, the employment rate for writers in their 20s and 30s rose 320 percent and 242 percent, respectively. Meanwhile, income for older writers barely kept pace with inflation.

"This is an important lawsuit that will be watched across the field of employment-discrimination law," says Linda Cavanna-Wilk, a New York-based employment lawyer. "It has the potential of setting precedents and ... could result in significant changes...."

The mere threat of legal action and public scrutiny may force hiring changes, some lawyers say. Whatever the outcome, expected to take two to five years, the suit is reopening a debate that has raged here for years.

In a dozen conversations, it was hard to find anyone to challenge the allegations. "It's a fact of life that young producers want to work with young writers," says Richard Fielder, a TV writer since the 1960s. "The culture is losing out when it ignores the richness, depth, and perspective of older writers."

This industry "fact of life," many say, grows out of a reality of consumer culture: Younger people are less set in their buying habits, more susceptible to advertising, and increasingly have more money to spend. The result: Younger buyers beget younger programming, which begets younger executives, creators, and writers.

"Hollywood has gotten younger and younger in terms of executives, who are hired out of the belief that only they know what the younger demographic viewer, primarily 18 to 34, wants," says Joe Gow, a communications professor at Alfred University in upstate New York. "Since the beginning of television, the newer, hotter network has always risen in the ratings. With the rise of cable TV and the coming Internet, that trend is accelerating."

The trend begs the obvious question: Why can't older writers write for younger viewers?

"They absolutely can," says writer Christopher Knopf, a septuagenarian. "But it is much easier for a young executive to deal with his ... contemporaries than to have someone like me with 100 TV credits and nine motion-picture credits. It's difficult for them to tell me what to do."

Many companies named in the suit - which includes studios, networks, and talent agencies - refuse comment while the case is under litigation. But some employees say that if there is a pattern of age discrimination, it's unconscious, not pernicious or premeditated.

Even before the suit, some producers ignored the conventional wisdom that only young audiences and young writers are worth pursuing. Longtime producer Dick Wolf ("Law and Order") readily uses veteran writers. "You have to have a few miles on the odometer to write about mature issues," he says. "It's pretty hard ... if you're 22."

(c) Copyright 2000. The Christian Science Publishing Society

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