Tough economic times take toll on scribe staffs

One unfortunate casualty of the recession that may not receive as much attention as the slow sales of homes is the shrinkage of the writers’ room.

Those containers of creativity haven’t physically gotten smaller across the television production landscape, but they’re slightly emptier these days. Rough financial seas have produced tighter ships.

“I definitely feel as if there are (fewer) jobs out there,” says Damon Lindelof, exec producer of ABC’s “Lost.”

“Whereas new shows from pilots that got picked up used to have 10 to 12 writers — that was the size of our staff in 2004 — we’re just eight now. In late winter and early spring of this year, when the recession was rearing its ugly head, everybody was hearing rumors about the ramifications, that nobody was immune and that we had to make compromises.”

But Lindelof also believes the tough national economic climate is just one contributing factor in the pruning of writing staffs.

“My feeling is that the television business is affected more drastically by a changing landscape of the business itself versus the fact that we’re in a recession,” he says.

William Rotko, exec producer of the FBI-themed Patrick Swayze starrer “The Beast,” which finished its one-season run for A&E, says a confluence of events has altered the TV dynamic.

“I don’t know if it’s a combination of the recession and the prior writers’ strike,” he says. “They kind of landed one after another. After the writers’ strike, it seemed this was going to happen anyway, but the recession sped up the process of reducing the size of the writers’ room.

“It seemed to take that network model and throw it out and put in the cable model. The cable model is a smaller room that creates less product, so you need fewer writers.”

Adam Glass has had both the cable and network experience. He was a writer-producer on A&E’s “The Cleaner” and is now on his first season on CBS’ “Cold Case.”

“I do feel you’re hearing that a lot out there,” he says of recessionary contractions in the writers’ room. “I feel like it’s somewhat cyclical, that we’re going through a lean period. I know some people disagree with me on this, but I think this is the way it’s going to be. From a business model, if people can get more bang for their buck, they’re going to try and do that.”

Glass, who also writes comicbooks for Marvel, says even though the recession may do a number on writers’ rooms, it’s more about the guidance the scribes are given than the quantity of scripters.

“It’s all about leadership,” he says. “If you have a showrunner with a clear vision — small or big — you’ll get the job done. Some of the greatest shows in television were written by a handful of people.”

Yet budget cuts and the trend toward thinner staffs is not just unwelcome news to those who are having trouble finding jobs but also to certain shows with a higher degree of difficulty.

“For a show like ours,” says Lindelof, “or ‘Dexter,’ that only does 15-17 episodes but is very serialized and complex and hard to do, it’s almost impossible to generate those shows with writing staffs of less than six to eight.”

For the immediate future at least, some shows might have to find out the hard way if that’s true.

“I don’t think anybody really knows, because we’re only now finding out what the new shape of the room can do,” Rotko says. “We’ll have to see if the story is working, if the procedurals are working. This may be the framework: a smaller, slightly condensed room.

“It’s a slow process to find out if that works. I’m not sure we’ll know for a while.”

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