But writers have less time to grow next hit

With everyone in TV tasked with doing more with less, will top scribes have the time and energy to come up with primetime’s next big smash?

That’s the question on the minds of some industry players — particularly tenpercenters — as studio overall deals shift away from being focused mostly on development.

Of course, that’s for writers who are able to command an exclusive multiyear contract. In an era of cutbacks and belt-tightening, the TV studios continue to trim back altogether on pricey pacts. 

With fewer scribes being paid to spend their days pounding away on their laptop at the local Starbucks, that could be a potential boon for spec scripts — as well as more development from feature scribes, who aren’t tied up on TV shows.

Beyond the industry’s megaproducers, the few scribes who do score an overall deal these days usually do so because a network/studio combo wants to put them in charge of a show or on a staff.

Making it even tougher for scribes, this year, most series are having to make do with smaller staffs — once again, a result of the weak economy. But that also means more work for everyone, including those writers who might otherwise have had time to develop.

“It’s the scourge of the future,” one agent says. “Studios never want you to develop now.”

Meanwhile, experienced writers without deals have had to make tough decisions this year: Do you join a series staff, which promises a steady paycheck, or do you hold back and develop what you hope could be your ticket to massive success?

“As the staffs are smaller, great people are not developing — or they don’t want to work on shows,” one rep says.

It used to be that you could do both. But most staffing deals now include an exclusivity (or first-look) clause built in.

“On the one hand, I understand the studios want the writers’ focus to be on the shows and protecting their investment on what’s already on the air,” another tenpercenter says. “But it’s forcing writers to make a choice between staffing and developing. It becomes a financial choice for writers.”

Reps say that the market for overalls has further tightened this year to be targeted toward writers who are seen as being integral to those series.

“It’s not about just about using 22 episodes to charge off a deal,” another agent says. “These are people they want to keep around for the next couple of years. It’s getting much more specific.”

But with all of their attention focused on turning a new show into a hit — or keeping a hit show going — that limits the time scribes have to craft a new series.

When writers now sign deals, it’s much more vague as to when they’re supposed to start mapping out development. Is it in year two? After the show they’re staffed on is set on a right path? Or after that series is, unfortunately, canceled? (Of course, they’ll probably then be pushed into another show by their studio at that point.)

All of this uncertainty could lead to a booming business this upcoming development season for spec scripts, as execs scour the land for projects.

Ditto the continuing migration of feature talent into the world of TV. With less development coming from busy TV writers, feature scribes (who have more free time to begin with) are much more available to go on pilot.

TV has always been a cyclical business, and right now, on balance, the networks hold leverage over talent.

“Everything is getting more difficult,” says one agent.

Even David Letterman isn’t immune, having agreed to a rollback at his Worldwide Pants shingle in order to keep his “Late Show” going for three more seasons at CBS.

With most of TV’s big names already locked into deals — J.J. Abrams, Shawn Ryan, Seth MacFarlane, Bill Lawrence, David E. Kelley, among others — there probably won’t be as many megapacts coming out of the congloms this year.

One agent predicts there probably only will be about five big deals this summer, and many of those among high-end players who have resisted deals in the past, only to finally agree to set up shop.

“There will be a handful of people that the studios are always asking about, people who have put multiple, zeitgeist-y shows on the air,” the rep says. “Should any of them become available, perhaps their deal on the show they created is up this year, then they will get a more traditional deal.”

But beyond that, it’s a long way from a decade ago, when the TV studios were handing out massive seven-figure pacts to anyone who had ever wandered onto the set of a hit TV show. 

The writers strike and then the recession finally gave the congloms a good excuse to tame the overall-deal marketplace.

“Like many of the other studios and networks, when we look at our overalls, they need to make sense,” NBC drama chief Laura Lancaster says. “Probably in the last year, more than ever, we’re making sure that deals match what our needs are. And we’re doing a lot of deals that include both staffing on shows and development.”

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