The tragic twist in the golden age of television

Hollywood writers have discovered that creativity is less rewarding than repetition

Hollywood: always troubled writers

Hollywood: always troubled writers


Hollywood always unsettled writers, as William Goldman noted. “The amounts you are paid are so staggering, compared to real writing, that it’s bound to make you uneasy,” the scriptwriter wrote in 1983 in Adventures in the Screen Trade.

The money was good but there was little respect. “You do not, except in rare, rare exceptions, get critical recognition. But you do get paid,” he concluded. His chief complaint was that directors were regarded as auteurs — the creative forces of Hollywood films — while writers were treated as hacks for hire.

Thirty years later, strange events have occurred. Television has overtaken film as the medium for the most ambitious writers. Some of them have become auteurs, with series such as House of Cards and Game of Thrones run by writer-producers known as showrunners. Yet many are now paid less.

The threat of a Hollywood writers’ strike lifted this week after the Writers Guild of America, their tiny but potent union, agreed a new three-year contract. The strike in 2007-08 shut down film sets, left talk show hosts struggling to write their own jokes and lost California $2.1bn in output.

The dispute reveals a curious state of affairs. In some ways, writers have never had it so good. Showrunners, such as Shonda Rhimes of Scandal and Grey’s Anatomy, and Carlton Cuse of Lost and Bates Motel, wield more power than predecessors. But scribes as a whole are under financial pressure.

It should not be so, in theory. Higher demand for an individual’s services and recognition ought to bring better wages. It has not worked like that. Writers were paid for repetition — churning out similar films and having shows syndicated. They are now more creative, but creativity is less rewarding.

They are clearly needed. The growth of streaming services such as Netflix and Amazon Prime, along with high-quality programming on US cable networks such as HBO and Showtime, has produced a boom in television production. There were 455 original scripted series last year, compared with fewer than half that figure in 2010.

The era of “Peak TV”, as it is dubbed by FX Networks, has produced a huge flow of creative work for writers, compared with the formulaic approach in films. While Hollywood is increasingly reliant on action franchises such as Star Wars and Transformers, television is a haven for high-quality drama.

The shift has brought dividends, both artistic and financial, for an elite band of writers. Producers and directors have the main co-ordinating role in films and hire writers and other professionals, such as designers and sound technicians, for each production. Television dramas are different because they are long-running franchises.

This encouraged the rise of showrunners, who oversee the storylines and scripts of series, and work as producers on behalf of studios, hiring the cast and crew for episodes. It is the fulfilment of Mr Goldman’s dream: writers in charge of directors, not the reverse.

Top showrunners have their own production companies and lucrative studio contracts. For writers down the pecking order, though, Peak TV has been a mixed blessing. It is good for expressing themselves creatively on series such as Breaking Bad, but less secure.

The problem is a creative surfeit. US television viewers used to watch mainly long-running drama or comedy series such as Law & Order and Seinfeld, and then watch again in syndication. Their writers would be hired on long, dependable contracts, and paid repeat fees known as residuals.

Series are now shorter: dramas on premium cable or streaming services have 10 to 13 episodes per series compared with the old standard of 22 to 24. They face more competition — there is always something new and original to watch — so residuals are lower.

The golden age of television thus hurts writers’ financial interests. The sweet spot was in the early 2000s when a few long-running shows were constantly in syndication, creating wealth for showrunners such as Dick Wolf of Law & Order. Today’s auteurs can only dream of such steady pay-offs.

The rewards for writers — even for showrunners without special deals — are lower because they spend longer on each distinctive episode, and receive less per week. More are being paid on the guild’s minimum wage scale, which is not exactly the breadline but equally is not the way to make a fortune. Hollywood’s writers made some advances in this week’s agreement with producers. But they should appreciate the irony of their story: having fought for years for artistic control, they discovered there was a twist.

Richard Caves, professor of economics at Harvard University, once wrote that entertainment employees suffer from an “art for art’s sake” instinct: “Artists may accept wages for creative work that fall short of their opportunity cost in humdrum employment, which means that artists can be viewed as a source of cheap labour.”

The hero always has a fatal flaw.

- (Copyright The Financial Times Limited 2017)

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