Op-Ed: How TV’s Slow Death Hurts TV Writers
This month, a controlling interest in the CW network was sold to Nexstar Media Group. This followed announcements earlier in the year that many of the network’s superhero- and youth-oriented shows would be cancelled. The sale sparked much dismay from fans who were worried about the future of their favorite shows. But as a working television writer for the last 20 years, I was alarmed for a very different reason.
The death of the old CW is just the latest sign of a television industry turning its back on the world of scripted shows on broadcast networks. The streaming system is eliminating the jobs of many currently working writers and eroding the ability to train and mentor the next generation of staff, leaving many unprepared to headline their own shows. In trying to save a few dollars, the industry is effectively eating its own seeds.
This is how employment mathematics works. A show with a season order of 18 to 23 episodes typically has eight to 12 working writers, ranging from staff writer to executive producer. Additionally, a show’s assistants and script coordinators are often given a freelance screenplay or story that serves as a sort of audition for a future permanent writing job.
Working on a show that spans multiple seasons can offer these employees a measure of financial stability in an industry notoriously fraught with festivals and famines, and provide a path to advance in titles and responsibilities as they gain more experience. As writers advance through a network show, they will often also work alongside the crew and participate in the pre- and post-production phases of the show. In this way, they can learn to deal with production constraints, budget issues, actor egos, and other critical aspects of television production. For example, on the CW superhero series Arrow, Beth Schwartz began as an assistant writer and served as executive producer for the seventh season.
Many of the most acclaimed writers and showrunners of the “golden age of television” cut their teeth on television. One of The Sopranos creator David Chase’s early jobs was writing The Rockford Files, and before Lost and Watchmen came into existence, Damon Lindelof wrote for the cop show Nash Bridges Don Johnson. ”
What happens when popular DC superhero shows migrate from CW to Warner Bros. Discovery’s own streaming service? For one thing, many writing jobs will be eliminated. Although shows like “Supergirl” or “The Flash” employ up to a dozen writers for their 22 episodes per year, the seasons are likely to be shortened on a streamer. Many premium cable and streaming shows with shorter seasons employ half a dozen or fewer writers, often on shorter contracts. And the eight episodes of the first season of HBO Max’s “Peacemaker” were all written by the show’s creator.
For established writers, hopping between eight-episode streaming shows, sometimes multiple times a year, is a more financially precarious system. And people who are new to the industry and get a job as a writer have fewer opportunities to learn other aspects of the business. In the streaming model, all of a show’s episodes are typically written prior to production, with the showrunner often being the only member of a writers’ room who remains post-production during filming.
That means writers growing up in the new system get senior positions after often writing just a handful of episodes — without ever setting foot on a set, speaking to actors and directors, or dealing with a budget meltdown. While experience doesn’t guarantee a good product, and there are examples of newcomers who have been brilliant showrunners from the get-go, it’s becoming more common to hear stories of people with no production experience causing huge cost overruns and delivering unusable episodes.
I worry about a future where these systems will become more and more the norm. In addition to the reduced opportunities for new writers, casting the same people for multiple shows can have a homogenizing effect on what we see. By cutting seasonal commissions and staff and severing the link between writing and production to conserve budgets, streamer operators and entertainment conglomerates could destroy the training and advancement infrastructure that made scripted television’s renaissance possible in the first place.
Zack Stentz is a film and television writer who has worked on shows such as Fringe, The Flash, and Jurassic World: Camp Cretaceous. @MuseZack