Tube puts squeeze on middle men

Daily Variety‘s recent stories on writers’ compensation were significant but missed an important point. The so-called “middle-class TV writers” aren’t the staff writer-producers making $25,000-$50,000 per series episode plus script fees. Those are the upper-class. The middle-class writers are the ones not working.

While the studios and networks lead the way with their allegedly non-existent “white lists,” when it comes to series episodes it’s also the powerful writer-producers who are giving virtually all the writing assignments to their overpaid staffs.

In the early days of TV drama and sitcom there was no such thing as a writing staff. Each series had a producer and a story editor, and they hired freelance writers to write individual episodes. Perhaps the story editor did a bit of minor rewriting, and then they were shot. The writing budget equaled the cost of the script plus the cost of the story editor’s salary.

Nowadays, scripted series can carry 6-10 staff writers. And each gets a salary just for coming to work. They draw jointly $100,000 or $150,000 per episode, and yet each script still has to be paid for separately above that, just like in the olden days. The only services all these writers provide for their salaries, some of which are $25,000 to $50,000 per episode, are brainstorming, rewriting and giving notes. (They also get involved in casting and editing, but that’s more a sop to them than an actual service to their boss.)

Something has gone very wrong not only with the economics but also with the creative process. Show runners are happy to have their writers close at hand. It gives them a sense of security. But does it really provide any security for them at all? I think not. Many of these staffers have little training, minimal talent, and need to be rewritten or sent back to rewrite again and again.

Each year thousands of college graduates, spec scripts in hand, pour into L.A. aiming at getting some of these staff jobs, and a handful succeed. Thousands fail.

The lucky few who happen to connect quickly become the budding-star clients fought over by major agencies, soon garnering six- and even seven-figure annual salaries for doing staff jobs while many other, equally talented aspiring writers end up working in post-production, bartending or parking cars.

And what happens to those writers who connected 10 and 15 years earlier, the seasoned staffers? Unless they’ve reached star status on prestigious shows, they’re deemed unemployable because they come from a previous “generation” thought to be unable to connect with today’s desired generation of viewers.

So the studios end up paying more and more money to fewer and fewer writers with less and less experience, while banning all others from the playing field.

Ironically, changing this is not only in the interest of a large majority of writers, but, strange as it seems, it’s also in the interest of the networks and studios dying to save money.

We need to go largely back to the old system where freelance writers did most of the writing of episodes, with each series paring back to a small staff who work as real story editors and don’t write original episodes except during hiatus.

Right now, the networks and studios are paying staff people twice for each script they write, both a fee to write it, and a salary even though they’re off writing it. It’s simply throwing money down the toilet. It’s also why so many shows look so much alike from week to week. If the same eight people write every episode, of course it’s going to look the same.

True, each series and character must have its own special voice. But somehow “MASH,” “All in the Family,” “Mary Tyler Moore,” “Lou Grant,” “Rockford Files,” and before them “Naked City,” “Route 66” and “The Defenders” managed to turn out brilliant shows week after week with small or no writing staffs. And they had 26-39 episode seasons.

Everybody benefited, the networks, the studios and the vast majority of members of the Writers Guild. And it could happen again. Each scripted series could cut back its staff writing budget by $50,000-$100,000 per episode.

That would be a savings of $1-2 million per season per series. That’s $20-40 million each for CBS, ABC and NBC’s prime-time schedule, plus $15-30 million each for Fox, WB and UPN, for a grand total of $105-160 million per year. And at the same time it would spread the money around and put a lot more writers, young and old, to work.

Bob Shayne, an award-winning TV writer-producer now working in features, has taught screen and TV writing at UCLA, NYU and Syracuse U., and does so currently at California Lutheran U. in Thousand Oaks.

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