How TV Writing Became an Impossible Job

How TV Writing Became an Impossible Job

During the six years she worked on “The Mentalist” beginning in 2009, Jordan Harper’s work was much more than a writing schedule. He and his colleagues in the writers room of the weekly CBS drama were heavily involved in the production. He paid attention to the costumes and props, stayed long on the sets, gave feedback to the actors and directors. This work went on for about a year.

But by 2018, when he worked on “Hightown,” a drama for Starz, the business of television writing had changed drastically. The writers spent approximately 20 weeks preparing the script, at which point most of their contracts expired, leaving many to struggle for additional work. The task of overseeing filming and editing was largely up to the showrunner, the writer-producer in charge of the series.

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

The separation between writing and producing, which is becoming increasingly common in the streaming age, is an issue at the center of a strike launched by some 11,500 Hollywood writers in May. The new approach requires more frequent job changes, he says, making their work less stable and reducing 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, is asked for a guarantee Each show will employ a minimum number of writers through the production process, with major studios stating that such proposals are “inconsistent with the creative nature of our industry.” The Alliance of Motion Picture and Television Producers, which negotiated on behalf of the Hollywood studios, declined to comment further.

Actors’ union SAG-AFTRA, which went on strike last week, said its members have also felt the effects of the streaming era. While many acting jobs had long been smaller than the writers, Duncan Crabtree-Ireland, executive director of the union, said the studio’s “extreme level of efficiency management” has led the show to break roles into smaller pieces and compress character storylines.

But Hollywood isn’t the only industry presiding over such changes, which reflect a long-term pattern: the division of work into “many smaller, more degraded, lower-paying jobs,” as labor historian Jason Resnikoff puts it.

In recent decades, this shift has also affected highly trained white-collar workers. Large law firms have relatively fewer equity partners and more attorneys on the standard partner track, according to data from legal media and intelligence company ALM. Universities employ fewer tenured professors and more non-tenured instructors as part of their faculty. Big tech companies employ relatively few engineers, while building an army of temps and contractors to test software, label web pages, etc. do low-level programming,

Over time, said Dr. Resnikoff, assistant professor at the University of Groningen in the Netherlands, “you get this tiered workforce of dignified workers and less workers” — fewer executives, more grumblers. The authors’ experience shows how unsettling that change can be.

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

By 1914, Ford Motor had repeatedly divided and sub-divided these jobs, spreading more than 150 people across a massive assembly line. Employees usually performed some simple tasks over and over again.

For decades, making television shows was in some ways similar to the early days of automaking: a team of writers was involved in all parts of the production. Many of the people who wrote the scripts were also on set, and they often helped edit and finalize the show.

The authors say that the “all-encompassing” approach had several benefits. At least: it improved the quality of the show. “You can compose a voice in your mind, but if you don’t hear it,” said Erica Weiss, co-showrunner on the CBS series “The Red Line,” “you don’t really know if it works.”

Ms. Weiss said that having her writers on set allows her to rework lines after the actors’ table reads, or to rewrite if a scene is suddenly moved indoors.

He and other writers and showrunners said that the system also taught young writers how to oversee a show—essentially grooming the apprentices to become master craftsmen of their time.

But writers being on set is becoming a rarity. Like the manufacturing sector, the work of making television shows is being broken down into more distinct tasks.

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

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

Showtime did not respond to a request for comment. industry analyst to signal Studios have felt a growing need to rein in spending amid the decline of traditional television and investor pressure to focus on profitability over subscriber growth.

In addition to the potential impact on the quality of shows, the change has also affected the livelihood of writers, who work 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, compared to 24 weeks on a streaming series — and only 14 weeks if a show hasn’t been greenlit yet. About half the writers now work in streaming, for which almost a decade ago no original content was created.

Many have also seen a reduction in their weekly wages. Chris Keyser, co-chair of the Writers Guild’s negotiating committee, said that studios have traditionally paid writers well above the union-negotiated minimum weekly rate as compensation for their role as producers—that is, for creating a theatrical universe, not just for fulfilling narrow tasks.

But as studios have separated writing from production, they have driven writers’ pay closer to the weekly minimum, essentially relegating compensation to production. According to the guild, about half of writers were paid the weekly minimum rate last year—about $4,000 to $4,500 for a junior writer on a show and about $7,250 for a more senior writer—up from more than a third in 2014.

Writers also receive residual payments – a type of royalty – when an episode they wrote is reused, such as when it is licensed in syndication, but say opportunities for residuals have diminished because streamers typically do not license or sell their shows. The Alliance of Motion Picture and Television Producers said in its statement that the writers’ most recent contract significantly increased the remaining payments.

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

The combination of these changes has turned the writing profession upside down. With writing jobs fast drying up, even established writers have to look for new ones, throwing them into competition with their less-experienced colleagues. And because most writing jobs pay the minimum, studios have a financial incentive to hire more established writers over less established writers, thereby stunting their advancement.

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

The authors also say that the studio has found ways to limit the duration of their jobs in addition to keeping them out of production.

Bianca Sams, who has worked on shows including the CBS series “Training Day” and The CW program “Charmed,” said that many junior writers hired for the writers’ room are “shut down” before the room is finished, leaving a small group to finish the season’s scripts.

“If they have to pay you weekly, at a certain point it becomes expensive to keep people on,” Ms Sams said. (Junior writers’ pay is more closely tied to weeks worked rather than episodes.)

The studio has expressed displeasure over writers describing their work as “gig” jobs, saying that most are guaranteed a certain number of weeks or episodes, and receive substantial health and pension benefits.

But many writers fear that the longer-term trend for studios is to break their work into smaller pieces that are pieced together by a single audience—the way a project manager might piece together software from the work of different programmers. Some worry that eventually writers may be asked to simply rewrite chatbot-generated drafts.

“I think Endgame is the cheapest, most piecemeal, automated way of producing content,” said Zaid Dohren, a Writers Guild member who oversees the Screen and Stage master’s degree program at Northwestern University, “and a layer of high-level creatives taking cheaply generated content and turning it into something.”

He added, “It’s the coder’s way of writing code – in a very drone-like way.”

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