Last season, inspired by the success of WB teen drama “Dawson’s Creek,” the nets and weblets trotted out a slew of similar bubble gum-flavored product geared toward the 12-34 demographic.
Yet, few of these youth shows stuck around, while a series of 40-something productions such as “Judging Amy” and “Family Law” on CBS; NBC’s “Providence” and ABC’s “Once and Again” managed to hold on and in the case of “Judging Amy,” became the season’s most watched new drama.
“I don’t think anybody foresaw this,” says Joanne Weintraub, television critic for the Milwaukee Journal-Sentinel. “Back in August and September we were all writing that this was the year of youth. ‘Manchester Prep’ never aired and ‘Wasteland’ tanked faster than you could say ‘Wasteland.’ And I don’t think anybody foresaw this ‘Judging Amy,’ ‘Family Law’ thing. Next to the whole Regis phenomenon, that was maybe the biggest TV story of the year. It’s like the aging baby boomers bite back.”
Could this be good news for TV writers who like the characters in these shows — are also 40-plus? If so, then it would be the first positive forecast for aging boomers in a long while, for as the Writers Guild of America assessed the scene for older writers in its 1998 Hollywood Writer’s Report, the over-40 set faces a grim future.
According to the ongoing report — the first of which was issued in 1987, “as a writer passes the age of 30, the rate of employment decreases.” For instance, for writers in their 50s, who were employed at a rate of 40% in 1987, by 1997 the employment rate had dropped to 19%. And as opportunity diminished for writers over 40, so did their paychecks, as median earnings also declined with age.
Why is this so important? When one considers that two-thirds of the guild’s membership is over 40, one begins to sense the urgency.
“Before this report, it was always writers in their 40s or early 50s who were making the most money in the industry and had the most respect,” says Larry DiTillio, who chairs the WGA’s age awareness committee. “That’s changed. So now it’s 30-year-olds who are making the most money. Forty-year-olds aren’t getting cut out, they’re still making it, but when you get to 50 you’re really in trouble. At 55, everything takes a huge dip. It’s almost like being 20 again — without the benefits of being 20 — because all of a sudden nobody knows your name.”
For DiTillio, who’s also a working writer in his early 50s, the challenge is two-fold: Alert the industry to these worthwhile writers and alert these writers to alternative markets, such as cable, syndication and even the Internet.
Yet, age is a real issue that generated a lot of heat in October 1998 when it was discovered that “Felicity” writer Riley Weston, considered a wunderkind, was not 19 years old as she’d claimed. Instead, she was 32. “In a business fraught with age bias, I did what I had to do to succeed,” Weston said of her ruse.
“There are always the wunderkinds, although they’re few and far between” says DiTillio. “But everybody seems to be looking for them now, as opposed to looking for people who’ve been around 20 years and done 100 different stories and kind of know what it is to work a story.”
As for the line-up for the upcoming season, things look decidedly mature, with ABC dumping its teen-oriented Friday night block in favor of more adult fare, such as a new comedy starring Gabriel Byrne as a “middle-aged recently divorced man” in “Madigan Men.” Even the WB will skew older with its new drama “Gilmore Girls,” about a 32-year-old single mom. Yet, youth will still have its place, as Fox serves up both David Kelley’s latest drama, which is set in a Boston high school, and 19-year-old Jessica Alba in James Cameron’s “Dark Angel.”
But as the scripts skew older, perhaps the industry will see the wisdom in using older writers.
Says “Judging Amy” executive producer Joseph Stern, “If everything was ‘Dawson’s Creek,’ then it would follow that the writers wouldn’t be 50 or 60 years old. Rather, they’d reflect what the programming is. The hope is that as the programming changes, there will be more opportunities for older writers. Whether that’s true or not, I don’t know.”
DiTillio agrees. Since the WGA report was published in 1998, he says the climate has changed. “A lot of the networks were saying that the advertisers demanded (the youth push). Then we found out by talking to advertisers that they weren’t demanding it. They don’t just want 18-34, they want to sell their products to everybody.
“Especially the pharmaceutical companies. You don’t need many pharmaceuticals between 20 and 40. But after 40, boy, those pharmaceuticals come in really useful.”
Stern says the networks need to have more faith in their audience, not in trends. “It isn’t that ‘Judging Amy’ would have failed three years ago, the audience hasn’t changed,” he says. “The problem is that the audience has always been underestimated. It’s not a coincidence that ‘The West Wing’ and ‘Family Law’ and ‘Judging Amy’ are successful. They’re good shows, they’re smart and they’re compelling and they would have worked last year and the year before. There’s no trend. Good is good.”