Why you should care
Because this is a drama worth 22 minutes of your time.
While much of the world’s population might be worried about losing jobs to The Robots! in the next decade, television writers appear calm and collected. After all, who could replace their creativity, their humor and their know-how about three-act structure and establishing shots? But that doesn’t mean your TV writer of 20 years ago is like your TV writer of today.
The $37 billion TV production industry has undergone a revolution, with upheavals ranging from how many episodes there are in a season to how many seasons a 30-minute drama gets. The execs are noticing too. During a panel at the Television Critics Association summer 2015 press tour, FX CEO John Landgraf proclaimed, “There is simply too much television.” With more than 400 scripted television shows on the air, Landgraf might not have been wrong, even though many are calling it the golden age of television, with quality content that film doesn’t always match. Still, fewer shows stick around long enough to hold on to a writing staff. The major shift is felt by writers, who, according to the Writers Guild of America minimum rates, earned $3,703 a week in 2013 on a show with a contract of at least 20 weeks. It used to be that a writer could have a “long career working on one particular show,” says Richard Walter, author of Essentials of Screenwriting; now, it’s more like freelancing.
Television writing, then, may go the way of contingent labor — like freelance journalism or driving for Uber — where the market is saturated and high in demand but shows are not looking to support writers for full-fledged careers. Where many used to be semi-lifers, writers now are used to bouncing around with less job security than in years past. The same goes for electricians, camera operators and makeup artists, Walter says.
The flip side: job insecurity. Thanks to shorter seasons, writers work half or a third of the year. And uncertainty about cancellation is kind of like a recession: It makes it hard to plan for the future. The Simpsons has been on for so long that people who were born with Bart as their contemporary can now see themselves in Homer, what with his dad bod and ennui about working a 9-to-5. But that’s a rarity these days. Silicon Valley writer Megan Amram remembers joining Parks and Recreation in Season 5 — her three-year tenure was the longest of her career so far — and hearing rumors of cancellation before she even started writing a script. The show staved off cancellation that season, but the writers kept the thought in the back of their mind, unsure when the ax might fall.
The snowball effects might make TV fans cringe. While Amram’s status as “a young, unmarried person” makes cancellation and unemployment a little less daunting, if only those with financial security can risk taking a writing gig that might evaporate before the year’s up, it could result in even less diverse writing rooms. Perhaps for TV lovers the most disappointing impact might be on the shows themselves: It’s hard to commit to long-term character development when cancellation is just around the corner.
On the plus side, more writing jobs and higher turnover has meant more opportunities for writers to try their hand at the trade. Instead of just a few major networks with particular tastes looking at scripts, cable and streaming services have expanded the market. They’re hungry for content and willing to buy “stranger things,” says writer Drew Goddard (Buffy the Vampire Slayer). More shows equal more jobs too, along with networking chances and the opportunity to learn to write in different styles. “It’s the greatest time for writers ever in entertainment,” Walter says.
The last “great time for television” was the first golden age, 60 years ago. Back in the 1950s and ’60s, limited channel choices paved the way to a monoculture dominated by only a few shows. When TV took off commercially after World War II, many writers made the transition from radio and B movies to the small screen. Writers stuck with their staffs and were often deeply loyal to the on-screen talent; for instance, some writers for I Love Lucy followed Lucille Ball to her subsequent shows The Lucy Show and Here’s Lucy, and all the way to 1986’s Life With Lucy.
Before the violin starts playing for the writers of today, Goddard cautions patience. For years, he’s heard people say that life for writers was better back in the day and that now isn’t a good time to be a writer. But that line of logic is too dire — change simply happens, Goddard says, and “it’s exciting.” For some, bouncing around, always looking for the next show to write for just comes with the job description. “If you’re looking for a stable job, you shouldn’t be in the business,” says former West Wing writer Josh Singer.