How TV Writing Became a Dead-End Job

For the six years he worked on “The Mentalist,” beginning in 2009, Jordan Harper’s job was far more than a writing gig. He and his colleagues in the writers’ room of the weekly CBS drama were heavily involved in production. They weighed in on costumes and props, lingered on the set, provided feedback to actors and directors. The job lasted most of a year.

But by 2018, when he worked on “Hightown,” a drama for Starz, the business of television writing had changed substantially. The writers spent about 20 weeks cranking out scripts, at which point most of their contracts ended, leaving many to scramble for additional work. The job of overseeing the filming and editing fell largely to the showrunner, the writer-producer in charge of a series.

“On a show like ‘The Mentalist,’ we’d all go to set,” Mr. Harper said. “Now the other writers are cut free. Only the showrunner and possibly one other writer are kept on board.”

The separation between writing and production, increasingly common in the streaming era, is one issue at the heart of the strike begun in May by roughly 11,500 Hollywood writers. They say the new approach requires more frequent job changes, making their work less steady, and has lowered writers’ earnings. Mr. Harper estimated that his income was less than half what it was seven years ago.

While their union, the Writers Guild of America, has sought guarantees that each show will employ a minimum number of writers through the production process, the major studios have said such proposals are “incompatible with the creative nature of our industry.” The Alliance of Motion Picture and Television Producers, which bargains on behalf of Hollywood studios, declined to comment further.

SAG-AFTRA, the actors’ union that went on strike last week, said its members had also felt the effects of the streaming era. While many acting jobs had long been shorter than those of writers, the union’s executive director, Duncan Crabtree-Ireland, said studios’ “extreme level of efficiency management” had led shows to break roles into smaller chunks and compress character story lines.

But Hollywood is far from the only industry to have presided over such changes, which reflect a longer-term pattern: the fracturing of work into “many smaller, more degraded, poorly paid jobs,” as the labor historian Jason Resnikoff has put it.

In recent decades, the shift has affected highly trained white-collar workers as well. Large law firms have relatively fewer equity partners and more lawyers off the standard partner track, according to data from ALM, the legal media and intelligence company. Universities employ fewer tenured professors as a share of their faculty and more untenured instructors. Large tech companies hire relatively fewer engineers, while raising armies of temps and contractors to test software, label web pages and do low-level programming.

Over time, said Dr. Resnikoff, an assistant professor at the University of Groningen in the Netherlands, “you get this tiered work force of prestige workers and lesser workers” — fewer officers, more grunts. The writers’ experience shows how destabilizing that change can be.

The strategy of breaking up complex jobs into simpler, lower-paid tasks has roots in meatpacking and manufacturing. At the turn of the 20th century, automobiles were produced largely in artisanal fashion by small teams of highly skilled “all around” mechanics who helped assemble a variety of components and systems — ignition, axles, transmission.

By 1914, Ford Motor had repeatedly divided and subdivided these jobs, spreading more than 150 men across a vast assembly line. The workers typically performed a few simple tasks over and over.

For decades, making television shows was similar in some ways to the early days of automaking: A team of writers would be involved in all parts of the production. Many of those who wrote scripts were also on set, and they often helped edit and polish the show into its final form.

The “all around” approach had multiple benefits, writers say. Not least: It improved the quality of the show. “You can write a voice in your head, but if you don’t hear it,” said Erica Weiss, a co-showrunner of the CBS series “The Red Line,” “you don’t actually know if it works.”

Ms. Weiss said having her writers on the set allowed them to rework lines after the actors’ table read, or rewrite a scene if it was suddenly moved indoors.

She and other writers and showrunners said the system also taught young writers how to oversee a show — essentially grooming apprentices to become the master craftspeople of their day.

But it is increasingly rare for writers to be on set. As in manufacturing, the job of making television shows is being broken down into more discrete tasks.

In most streaming shows, the writers’ contracts expire before the filming begins. And even many cable and network shows now seek to separate writing from production.

“It was a good experience, but I didn’t get to go to set,” said Mae Smith, a writer on the final season of the Showtime series “Billions.” “There wasn’t money to pay for me to go, even for an established, seven-season show.”

Showtime did not respond to a request for comment. Industry analysts point out that studios have felt a growing need to rein in spending amid the decline of traditional television and pressure from investors to focus on profitability over subscriber growth.

In addition to the possible effect on a show’s quality, this shift has affected the livelihoods of writers, who end up working fewer weeks a year. Guild data shows that the typical writer on a network series worked 38 weeks during the season that ended last year, versus 24 weeks on a streaming series — and only 14 weeks if a show had yet to receive a go-ahead. About half of writers now work in streaming, for which almost no original content was made just over a decade ago.

Many have seen their weekly pay dwindle as well. Chris Keyser, a co-chair of the Writers Guild’s negotiating committee, said studios had traditionally paid writers well above the minimum weekly rate negotiated by the union as compensation for their role as producers — that is, for creating a dramatic universe, not just completing narrow assignments.

But as studios have severed writing from production, they have pushed writers’ pay closer to the weekly minimum, essentially rolling back compensation for producing. According to the guild, roughly half of writers were paid the weekly minimum rate last year — about $4,000 to $4,500 for a junior writer on a show that has received a go-ahead and about $7,250 for a more senior writer — up from one-third in 2014.

Writers also receive residual payments — a type of royalty — when an episode they write is reused, as when it is licensed into syndication, but say opportunities for residuals have narrowed because streamers typically don’t license or sell their shows. The Alliance of Motion Picture and Television Producers said in its statement that the writers’ most recent contract had increased residual payments substantially.

(Actors receive residuals, too, and say their pay has suffered in other ways: The streaming era creates longer gaps between seasons, during which regular characters aren’t paid but often can’t commit to other projects.)

The combination of these changes has upended the writing profession. With writing jobs ending more quickly, even established writers must look for new ones more frequently, throwing them into competition with their less-experienced colleagues. And because more writing jobs pay the minimum, studios have a financial incentive to hire more-established writers over less-established ones, preventing their ascent.

“They can get a highly experienced writer for the same price or just a little more,” said Mr. Harper, who considers himself fortunate to have enjoyed success in the industry.

Writers also say studios have found ways to limit the duration of their jobs beyond walling them off from production.

Many junior writers are hired for a writers’ room only to be “rolled off” before the room ends, leaving a smaller group to finish the season’s scripts, said Bianca Sams, who has worked on shows including the CBS series “Training Day” and the CW program “Charmed.”

“If they have to pay you weekly, at a certain point it becomes expensive to keep people,” Ms. Sams said. (The wages of junior writers are tied more closely to weeks of work rather than episodes.)

The studios have chafed at writers’ description of their work as “gig” jobs, saying that most are guaranteed a certain number of weeks or episodes, and that they receive substantial health and pension benefits.

But many writers fear that the long-term trend is for studios to break up their jobs into ever-smaller pieces that are stitched together by a single showrunner — the way a project manager might knit together software from the work of a variety of programmers. Some worry that eventually writers may be asked to simply rewrite chatbot-generated drafts.

“I think the endgame is creating material in the cheapest, most piecemeal, automated way possible,” said Zayd Dohrn, a Writers Guild member who oversees the screen and stage master’s degree program at Northwestern University, “and having one layer of high-level creatives take the cheaply generated material and turn it into something.”

He added, “It’s the way coders write code — in the most drone-like way.”

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