I just wanted to chime in on the announcement that the major networks, studios and agencies have agreed to pony up $70 million to settle a class action age discrimination suit for writers.
It’s common coin for most folks to believe that ageism is really sour grapes expressed by those who just can’t cut it any more. But if you look closely at the stats on how the Industry has changed over the years – especially in television – it tells quite another story.
Of my writer friends in their fifties, most – including Emmy winners – have become discouraged and left the business. Those still working have gone from job to job to job, with no gap in their work or earning record. Like reliable cash crops these of course are the clients the agencies want, the ones who are easy to place, where it isn’t “too much trouble” to set meetings.
There’s a document called the TV Tracker List that collates all the writer-producers on every network comedy and drama and records who represents them. It’s an eye-opening list. Almost every writer-producer on every network show is represented by one of the major agencies. Let’s name them: CAA, Morris/Endeavor, ICM, UTA, Paradigm, with a far smaller scattering repped by Gersh, Rothman Brecher, Kaplan Stahler, APA and the Alpern Group.
This is a major sea change from how TV operated just a few years ago, as is the way shows assign scripts to writers.
For most of the years I worked on series and on most of the shows on which I served on staff, we’d get a twenty-two episode per season order. The writing staffs were small, sometimes only three or four writers, and half of our twenty-two episodes were freelance assignments. That meant that there were at least eleven slots per year where a freelancer could prove him or herself, could find a way to start climbing the ladder.
That’s no longer the case. On most shows, they’ll only assign two freelance slots as per WGA requirement, and usually give the assignments to their assistants or others in-house. Or they’ll just take the fine and have no freelance assignments, because it’s easier all round.
Many of the shows on which I landed on staff came from my writing a freelance script that got me in the door. But without that opportunity and without one of the major agencies representing a current writer, how can one possibly get on the radar?
As for entry-level staff writing jobs, there’s a hitch there, too. The edict has recently come down from many of the studios that their shows are only allowed to hire low-or-entry-level writers from winners of their Fellowships (NBC/Universal, ABC/Disney, Warners, Fox).
So upper level writers only get hired if they’re repped by top agencies, low level only from the Fellowship winners (and I just heard that one of those fellowships had six thousand entries, with only twelve chosen). With the exception of that odd, out-of-left field writer suggested by a network or studio exec.
So for older writers, is it ageism keeping them locked out? Who can say?
But I do know this – of my friends who are still working in network series television, there’s not a one that’s not represented by a major agency.
Which is not to say I intend to offer a message without hope, for that’s not helpful, nor is it true. You just have to look for the exception to the rule, and for guidance from those who know.
Some years ago, I had lunch with the great Horton Foote, and he told me a story that has meant a good deal to me over the years. After he wrote and won the Oscar for the screenplay to To Kill a Mockingbird, tastes changed and he couldn’t get arrested, his career dried up. He was going to give it all up and become an antiques dealer but his wife, a realtor, said she’d support him, that he should just keep writing. He wrote steadily for ten years without being hired. Then he penned Tender Mercies, which got shot and won him his second Oscar, and his career was back on track.
So keep writing, keep striving, keep hope. Or as I often like to say, “Be happy, be kind, be brave.”
All good thoughts your way,