Subtitled "The Kiss That Saved Dawson's Creek and Other Adventures in TV Writing", this is a fascinating 2007 book by writer and producer Jeffrey Stepakoff which goes behind the scenes of the TV industry over the last 20 years.
>> Read a review courtesy of the Dead Things On Sticks blog.
[#1 Billion Dollar Kiss]
"Content is king."
- Summer Redstone
In 1999, at the end of a summer that was hot even by L.A. standards, I sat in the story room with the other Dawson's Creek writers and tried to keep my panic in check. When you write one-hour TV-feeding the massive apparatus that produces a $2.5 million mini-movie every six days, day in and day out-you are certainly accustomed to round-the-clock doses of heart-thumping, stomach-churning, no-way-in-hell-will-we-make-the-deadline anxiety. But the panic that gripped the writing staff on Dawson's Creek this particular day was a special kind-an unforgettable kind. To say that the show was starting to sink would be polite; at this point at the beginning of Season Three, we were already deep, deep, underwater. When I was hired onto the writing staff a few weeks earlier, Dawson's Creek was the hottest show on television.
We were officially entering Crisis Mode. One of our bosses, executive producer Paul Stupin, paced the cagelike conference room, a nervous mother hen encouraging every idea that hatched from the writing staff. "I love it! I love it!" was shouted at even the most inane story ideas... Coming off Party of Five, coexecutive producer Tammy Ader wanted us to do touching stories where Dawson saved the creek from industrial pollution. Coming off The X Files, executive producer Alex Gansa wanted us to do dark stories about a promiscuous girl named Eve. The more the new writing showrunners would disagree, the more anxiously enthusiastic the nonwriting showrunner would become. In the center of this mad triangle sat the new writing staff, aimlessly pitching anything and everything, looking for direction, and wondering what the hell Sony, our studio, was thinking when they created this scenario.
Kevin Williamson, the creator, had just "left" the series because, in his own words to Entertainment Weekly, he was "starting to crash and burn." The rest of his writing staff (with one exception) had also "left." The ratings were falling. The viewers were disgusted with the campy and arbitrary story lines. As one critic put it, fans felt that the zeitgeist-hip Dawson's Creek was fast becoming "a stagnant pond." And the actors-James Van Der Beek, Katie Holmes, Josh Jackson, Michelle Williams-were miserable. Some of them weren't speaking to each other, which made writing scenes where they had to work together quite challenging. Some of them just flat-out refused to do the material we were giving them. I'd never even heard of anything like this before. Oh, and when they soon got wind of our "edgy" new story arch-Pacey and Jen (Josh and Michelle) becoming "bump buddies," having a purely sexual romp in a bathroom stall at school-the actors literally threatened mutiny, what one writer would later call "the Coup." Urgent calls went in to agents. Emergency visits were made to executive offices.
On this particular morning in the Dawson's Creek story room, we knew that if we didn't come up with a smart, respectable story line that had some drive, the WB, our network, was going to shut down production. What was Sony thinking? How did such a promising new show go south so fast? And was there even a chance that the forces gathered in the Room could save Dawson's Creek…not to mention ourselves?
It's impossible to
explain what it was like to be a television writer in Hollywood in 1999,
or why Dawson's Creek was in grave trouble, without explaining the money.
Even in its most prudent days, it's hard to imagine a more speculative
business than television. The traditional model has always been that the
studios deficit-finance their shows, eating substantial losses on the pilots
that never air and the series that get canceled, because the occasional
hit more than pays for all those failures when it's sold into syndication.
But in the nineties, hit TV shows became so wildly valuable-more than a
billion dollars in revenue for shows like ER and Friends, by some accounts
more than $3 billion for Seinfeld-that the studios essentially disregarded
costs and started doing just about anything to make sure their shows got
and stayed on the air.
Combined with all the new networks and channels in need of programming, this created a wild seller's market for TV writers, making us the focus of a feeding frenzy that rivaled even the irrational exuberance for dot-com stocks simultaneously underway in the equity markets. Never before in the history of Hollywood-arguably, in the history of American industry-had so many twenty-and thirtysomethings made so much money so fast.
The anxiety was escalating
in the Dawson's Creek story room... As the day progressed and the story
process did not, moving from constructive dialectic into something less
collegial, twenty-seven-year-old Greg Berlanti, a former movie producer's
assistant who had just started writing TV the year before, said something
that changed all our lives: "Pacey kisses Joey."
What? I remember thinking. "You can't do that. Joey is Dawson's girl. Remember, they are soul mates, and that is the closest thing we have to a franchise around here."
But Greg was so impassioned, as was his usual state, that he jumped up, grabbed a cheerful color marker from Tammy, and drew a triangle on one of the boards, writing "Pacey" at one point, "Joey" at another, "Dawson" at another. "No, I'm serious," he said. "Pacey kisses Joey. Think about it!"
And that's when it hit me. Of course! A love triangle. Heresy is exactly what the show needed. Not only did we have a story, we had a story engine, a dramatic problem that would create many other stories. There had been a love triangle on the show before, between Dawson, Jen, and Joey. There had once even been a kiss between Joey and Pacey. But these stories never went anywhere. As one person closely affiliated with the series put it, "Those ideas were floating around in the ether; Greg pulled them out and focused on them." For the first time, we had a series. The Katie Holmes-Josh Jackson Kiss, the love triangle it created, and the stories that it bore drove the show to 128 episodes, six seasons, and international acclaim.
The Kiss also seemed to justify this new formula for valuing writers on their future potential. For its speculative investment of a few hundred grand in Greg, Sony now had the potential to realize a billion-dollar return.
What the studios were about to discover was that even with the occasional billion-dollar kiss, by the time you figured in the costs of all the other Gregs on all the other struggling shows that did not pay off, and added all that to the costs of producing all these failed series and failed pilots, the business model had become flawed. In fact, it was so flawed that our studio, Sony, would soon settle or just pay off much of their $75 million in TV writer deals, fire seventy of their prime-time TV executives and employees, and drop out of the broadcast television business.
>> Read Chapter 1 online at Fiction Wise
[#2 Bochco's Blood]
mother, secret lover."
- Homer Simpson
On Monday February 22, 1988, I arrived in Los Angeles. No one ever forgets his or her first time flying into the LA basin. The implausible sight of 10,000 square miles of concrete - what was not so long ago an entire desert - paved and plumbed, lit up like some endless movie premiere, with little regard for fault lines, geographic constraints, or limitations of any kind, imparts a devil-may-care sense of possibility.
Carrying the slim leather briefcase that my mom gave me when I started a job in advertising three years earlier and wearing the blue suit I had worn to a Macy's buyer training program interview three and a half years earlier, I looked suspiciously like Michael J Fox in The Secret of My Success - okay, I looked a lot like someone trying to look like that.
The programming from the 1987-88 television season that came over the 19-inch glass tube in my little apartment in Pittsburgh was better than anything being written for the American theater. This is not hyperbole. The Slap Maxwell Story, Thirtysomething, The Days and Nights of Molly Dodd, The Wonder Years, Frank's Place, Hooperman, A Year in the Life, Crime Story, China Beach, the shows that aired the season I finished graduate school, led to a widespread renaissance that redefined mass entertainment... These new, so-called quality shows were thought-provoking, revolutionary and culturally and socially resonant; they shared many of the qualities one might apply to a critical and common definition of art... They all had something fundamental in common: They were all created and led by writers, writers who had been given unconditional amounts of creative leeway.
With it's hard-hitting cinema verite realism, fast pacing and interwoven story lines, Hill Street Blues literally broke all the rules and established a new model for the television show, a model that influences nearly all quality episodic dramas today... Until this time, TV writers made their two-dimensional characters move around like chess pieces. Characters were forced to service a story with its predictable car chases and fourth-act resolutions. The good guys always one. Wrongs were always righted. But in Hill Street, character motivated story, as opposed to the other way round.
[#3 How'd You Like to Make Ten Grand?]
"When you go to your
meetings, don't you dare dress like that. You don't need to be the best-dressed
person in the room. Remember, you're a writer."
- Renowned agent Beth Uffner
It's been said that television is a writer's medium and film is a director's. This is mostly true.
For better or worse, a TV show sails or sinks with the writer in charge of the ship. The smartest and most respected TV executives I have met understand this. What television studio executives began to realise in the late 80s is that the most influential decision a studio can make on a TV show is simply deciding which writer to place in charge. It is probably this distinction more than any other that is responsible for the rise of television as a quality artistic medium and the simultaneous descent of the motion picture into, first and foremost, a corporate product.
[#4 Green Envelopes]
"An agent is a bulldog.
You don't want him sitting at your dinner table. You want him outside,
tied up in front of the house, barking like crazy."
- Anonymous TV producer
Unlike New York, LA is a relatively easy city in which to be poor... It's warm and sunny in Southern California... People, young people, come from all ends of the earth to pursue a goal, a dream, that can only be realized in the City of Angels. Consequently, there's a massive subculture of interns and assistants, coffee-getters and lunch-deliverers. Though there is no question that living below the poverty line sucks, in LA there's a certain nobility in it - it is an accepted and expected part of the proverbial dues-paying process.
"Someone should write
a show about us, you know, people our age."
"My friend was an assistant on Growing Pains and she says that Neal Marlens says that nothing interesting ever happens in your twenties. That's why there are family shows about kids and shows like Thirtysomething, but nothing in between. No stories to tell about 20-year-olds that anybody cares about."
- Discussion between two 20-something writers
Today, most working television writers participate in the management of their shows. Whether they are called story editors, producers or consultants, today's TV writer has a say in everything from story to casting to editing. What people I meet never seem to understand is that writing is just one apsect of what we do.
Here are the basic
staff positions and their ballpark compensation levels:
Staff Writer - $7,500 per episode
Story Editor - $9,000
Executive Story Editor - $10,000
Coproducer - $12,500
Producer - $17,500
Supervising Producer - $25,000
Coexecutive Producer - $25,000
Executive Producer - $60,000
After 1988 it became
much more lucrative to be a TV writer. However, paradoxically, the 1988
strike caused irreparable damage to the network TV business. When the fall
season started late in December 1988, 9% of the audience did not return...
This began the acceleration of network audience erosion that has continued
to this day. One of the greatest beneficiaries of the strike was the newly
developing cable networks, which began to grow as many viewers, in search
of something to watch, bought cable for the first time... In 1979 about
90% of the audience watched the big-three nets. By 1988 that number had
dropped to 70%. By 1996, less than half of the prime-time audience, 49%,
watched the big-three networks.
As network ratings drpped, advertising revenue dropped. The networks, whose only real source of income came from that advertising, studied several possible new business models that could ensure profitability. One of these was to look at several successful non-scripted shows like America's Most Wanted and 48 Hours, which the studios developed as a defensive response to the strike - and consider making more like them. These were shows that did not use writers.
[#5 Written By]
"A story outline is
like a map. It should be detailed enough so that you know where you're
going, but vage enough so that you can make discoveries along the way."
- Joe Dougherty
Pitching fell out of favour... Shows began to learn that just because someone was good at pitching, it didn't mean that he or she would be good at writing. In fact, pitching is essentially a sales skill set and is in many ways anthitetical to the process of writing.
At 6:02pm Pacific Standard
Time, my name flashed on the television screen for exactly three seconds...
About 15 million people saw what I wrote that night. About 15 million people
saw my name and knew that I was a Writer... My friends and I went up on
the roof of my new apartment just off Sunset and drank Jim Beam by the
search lights from the police choppers until dawn. I did it... What else
can I say? It as one of the greatest days of my life.
- Recalling the airing of his first ever script on "Simon & Simon"
[#6 Breakfast at the Polo Lounge]
In Hollywood, momentum is everything. And in Hollywood there is only momentum, one way or the other, meaning that you are either succeeding or not succeeding. You see, no one does just okay on TV. People either love your work and are big fans, or they want nothing to do with you. You're either in or our. If you hear they thought your script was 'interesting', they hate you... If they had any kind of reaction other than to absolutely love what you did, you're screwed... In Hollywood, no news is always bad news and bad momentum.
David Milch frequently offered me cash. He almost always had a large wad of cash in his pocket, and sometimes he'd just spontaneously whip it out and ask me if I needed any pocket money. Sometimes he'd peel off hundred-dollar bills and drop them on the desk of an assistant. "Your horse just came in," he'd say, often just a few minutes after berating them about something... I heard he would offer actors cash on the set if they would get their lines right on the first take... Many people (including Bocho) have called Milch a genius. And yet, Milch told me that when Bochco gave him some script notes with which he didn't agree, Milch snuck into Bochco's office and urinated all over the place. Bochco then fired Milch and shortly rehired him, but only after Milch agreed to write 'urine-free' on Post-it notes and stick them in the areas where he didn't relieve himself. Whether this particiular anecdote is true or not, I can't say for sure...
Money, of course, is one of the primary reasons writers get into TV, but often it is not why they stay. And never does it entice them to do their best work. Hollywood has a long history of luring good writers with the promise of easy money ... They wrote movies over which they had little control. Their screenwriting endeavours were really second careers, in most cases used to support other forms of more satisfying writing. Faulkner and F Scott Fitzgerald didn't write in Hollywood because they loved the movies. They did it purely for the money. But from what I saw, David Milch, and many other great writers that I met around MTM, were not just writing for the money... David was filthy rich... Even after undergoing repeated heart surgeries, Milch didn't buy a yacht and sail the world. The guy worked his ass off to create and run Deadwood. Milch and writers like him that I met at MTM were driven by something besides money.
"Whadda you want? You're
always trying to get things to come out perfect in art because it's real
difficult in life."
- Alvy, "Annie Hall"
I think that summarizes why writers get addicted to TV writing. The chance to get things just the way you want them, to see this thing in your head, what was once a dream, fully and perfectly realized. And you get to do it again and again every week. Although I'd only done it once, I wanted more... I truly can't imagine anything more intoxicating than making TV shows every week.
It's hard to explain in succint terms just what makes a good TV writer, and by association good TV, because of course you're dealing with something that is subjective. But by this time, just like I saw a pattern in the pathology of all my colleagues, I saw similarities among the most talented. Obviously, they all have good skills, a mastery -- or at least an intuitive understanding -- of craft. But with hard work and commitment that can be picked up. There's something else, too. The best way I can explain it is tha they have a sensitivity to the world around them, a sort of sixth sense. They pay attention to the little things that others miss. Every outing to the bank, mall, or post office is a chance to people-watch. They listen for subtext instead of just what someone is simply stating. They watch body language, what someone is wearing, how someone is behaving. They always look for the inside joke... At times, frankly, this life can be downright exhausting...Simply put, TV writers are original and whacked-out people.
[#7 The Funny Business]
What often seems like genius when you're writing under pressure at 3:30 in the morning is not quite as brilliant when the actors read it a few hours later. One time in the middle of the night on Major Dad, we needed a funny line for the major - actually we needed a funny word: "Sure, I'll quit my job in the Marine Corps, and began my new career as a ___." Twelve smart, talented, highly paid writers sat on the floor at a Universal office for well over an hour and did nothing but pitch funny occupations. Somehow, the idea of Gerald McRaney as an alligator wrestler made us laugh so hard we just had to use it. A few hours later though, at the final run-through, it didn't seem so funny. Certainly not to McRaney- "An alligator wrestler???"
When I wrote Major Dad, sitcoms were king. Sure, there were the China Beaches, but when regular folks talked about TV, they talked about situation comedies. That's what people mainly watched. For example, during the 1988-89 season, eight out of the top ten shows were sitcoms: Cosby Shows, Roseanne, A Different World, Cheers, The Golden Girls, Who's The Boss, Empty Nest and Anything But Love... Most of these sitcoms were also pretty good. Some were great. I would even go so far as to call many of these quality shows. This would be the trend up until the mid-90s. In the 1995-96 season, 60% of the top twenty highest-rated shows were sitcoms, including Seinfeld, Friends, Frasier and Murphy Brown. However, as of this writing, in the 2005-06 season, just one comedy, Two and a Half Men, made the Nielson list of the top 20 shows. What happened to sitcoms? A lot of things. But for starters, many of these shows were made by independent production companies.
[#8 Life and Times of a Story Editor]
In 1988, the year I graduated from school, I earned $40,577. In 1989, I earned $152,425. In 1990, at age twenty-six, I earned $275,692.
Very few people really understood what I did. My father flew out to LA on several occasions just to try to get his head around it. I still think he came out just to make sure I wasn't dealing drugs. "They pay you for making up stories all day?" ... Most people I met thought a story editor was a film editor.
A 29-year-old with a bunch of money in the bank doesn't pull off that wide-eyed "I'll kill to work here" enthusiasm very well unless it's for a show for which he really felt that way. I did not have meetings with any of the shows I felt that way about for the 1992-93 season.
Writers move around a lot in TV. Writers frequently leave or get kicked off one show and move to another. I started to think of a TV writing career as like being in a large fraternity party and frequently moving from room to room. Every room has its own little mini party, with new people and new material.
As it turned out, writing on a TV staff was in fact not just fun and games and writing cool stuff, it was also tolerating and negotiating - knowing when to shut up. At times, it was being rewritten. And at times, it was getting an assignment you didn't love and finding a way to love it. Writing TV on staff was often, in fact, work.
[#9 The Hollywood Gold Rush]
"There are many ways
to talk about television. But in a 'business' perspective, let's be realistic:
basically, our job is to help Coca-Cola sell its product. To make the advertising
message well received, the audience's brain must be available. Our shows
are here to make the brain available, to entertain it, to relax it, to
prepare it between two messages. What we're selling to Coca-Cola is available
human brain time. Nothing is as difficult as getting this availability."
- Patrick Le Lay, CEO of French TV Channel TFI
Most people living in LA between 1992 and 1994 felt a certain Job-like quality about their lives. It was as if the universe was challenging us, testing our resolve to stay... The 1994 quake, which killed 61 people, took place in the middle of a massive recession, partly caused by the collapse of the region's aerospace industry, that saw more than a half million people leave metro LA. Add to this the daily perils of life in LA - smog, traffic, killer bees, and regular insanity like OJ Simpson's June '94 slow-speed chase - and life in LA during this time felt like some sort of Darwinian rite of survival.
In the end, Seinfeld could end up being worth well over $3 billion. Not bad for a television show about nothing. The promise of this kind of money coming from something as intangible as an idea in Larry David's head drove entire companies to near madness.
With the passage of
the Telecommunications Act of 1996, networks were now allowed to own their
own shows. Networks could now make money off the syndication of the shows
they aired... Television was no longer treated like a public trust, which
is how the FCC initially conceived it, but as any other product in a free
market-place... The repercussions have shaped how we get, who controls,
and the content of our news, information and entertainment.
As soon as the rules were repealed, nearly overnight, a tidal wave of mergers and acquisitions, start-ups and consolidations took place. NBC immediately formed its own studio so that it could supply and profit from its own shows... Paramount and Warner Brothers, joining Fox, immediately launched their own in-house networks, UPN and the WB. CBS merged with Westinghouse and then, a few years later, with Viacom... Not to be outdone, the Walt Disney Company purchased its own network too - ABC for $19 billion - more than three times what General Electric paid for NBC just seven years earlier... At exactly the same time that all these new markets, foreign and domestic, clamored for TV shows and drove up the price of syndicated programming to previously inconceivable levels, new entire networks - also in need of programming - joined the fray.
As hit shows became more valuable, the studios started charging astronomical amounts when they negotiated or renegotiated license fees with the networks. For example, Warners demanded a licence free of $276 million a season for NBC for ER when it went into its fourth season.
During this time, it became standard procedure to give the third-tier writer on a 35th highest-rated show millions of dollars to sit in a room for a couple of years with a NERF basketball and try to think up the next Veronica's Closet... In the 80s, a writer might be paid five figures to develop a pilot. But now, brand-new writers - I mean, right out of school - were being paid hundreds of thousands of dollars to develop and write a single script. Many of these new writers remained untrained throughout their careers, even if the script they were writing went into production, because the writers with experience who could actually mentor them were so outnumbered by all the new talent... Their compensation ran well into the seven and eight figures.
In 1997 the entire
industry had gone through a great sea change driven by enormous sums of
money and the promise of even more. The whole town was filled with a sense
of breathlessness - you felt it in meetings, talking to colleagues, heard
it in your agent's voice - it was somewhere between exultation and panic.
When I was a kid there was a game show that I used to watch that featured a phone booth-like glass box filled with cash. A contestant would step inside and a fan would blow that cash all around the box. The idea was for the contestant to grab as much cash as he or she could before the machine was turned off. This is what it felt like to be working in television in Hollywood at this time. Except none of us knew that the machine would soon be turned off.
[#10 The Seasons of LA]
A script is 60 pieces of paper, a couple of brads, and few hundred grand. A pilot episode is millions of dollars and a major undertaking... About 15 to 20 scripts per network are green-lighted for production.
The new WB network did not commit the resources to a full produced pilot for Dawson's Creek. Rather, a 38-minute "pilot presentation" was produced. A pilot presentation is made by producing just parts of a pilot script, as opposed to the whole thing. An order for a pilot presentation, used be executives to judge a show's potential merits, essentially means: "We love the project. We are BIG fans. Just not big enough to commit $5 million."
[#11 Vertical Integration and Segregation]
"Everybody comes from
a dysfunctional family - it's the 90s. The only happy families are in TV
- Pacey, "Dawson's Creek"
As silly as it was,
I have to admit, I thought it was actually fun - writing lines where Carmen
Electra talks like a brilliant, Ivy League-educated, razor-charp CEO is
an experience very few TV writers ever get to have.
- Recalling his time on the doomed series Hyperion Bay
In the 30s the studio system rose to prominence. In the 50s and 60s, this was usurped by the rise of the star and their agents. By the 80s, the true golden era of television was born, ushered in by the supremacy of the writer and the competitive spirit of the independent production companies. In the late 90s now, TV had entered a new era: the age of the conglomerate... One way or another, through co-productions with each other, a stake in a formerly independent subsidiary, or complete vertical ownership - meaning the studio that makes the show is owned by the same company as the network that airs it - nearly all TV today is made and broadcast by just these six companies.
Although from a purely business perspective, the consolidation of media made a great deal of sense, the conglomerates did something that did not. As they drove the price of writing talent to irrational levels, they simultaneously disempowered the talent that they so desperately sought.
Since the studio was concerned not only with provisional stunts that would just keep a show going week to week but with its overall quality - which translated into better syndication sales - a studio supported the writer and the integrity of his or her vision. With the studio out of the equation, this checks-and-balances system between studio and network was gone. The network now had free and unadulterated run of all aspects of a series, from marketing to casting to story. Television was now, quite literally, at the mercy of an individual network executive's personal predilections. Network execs, who had previously been a gear in a complex and balanced system, became autocratic heads of the entire operation almost overnight - and they were charged with running everything.
Removing the studios from the mix was like taking Congress away from the president. There were no advisors, no forum for debate, no creative due process. Dissent was disallowed and dealth with harshly.
All the networks were growing increasingly involved not just in programming but in the hands-on production of the shows in which they now had an interest... From music to story to casting, the WB made sure their flagship shows all had a consistent image. From vampires on Angel to aliens on Roswell to the nerds on Popular, everyone was young, fashionable and hot. Even extras had to have a 'WB-brand look'.
[#12 Kissing Katie Holmes]
"Art may imitate life,
but life imitates TV."
- Ani DiFranco
During the first two
weeks (developing season 3 of Dawson's Creek), with Tammy at the helm,
the seven writers and Paul Stupin all piled into the story room and pitched
all sorts of ridiculous things that we got ourselves all excited about.
Tammy quickly started leading ud down a Risky Business story where Pacey
gets Dawson a hooker... Someone was concerned that the story was no longer
simply being inspired by the movie but that it was sounding exactly like
Risky Business... Then someone suggested making Dawson aware that it was
just like the movie, "That's right," I confidently shouted, "we'll claim
'Claim it' was among my favourite story-room buzz words. To claim something in a script means to have a character consciously reference the material you are stealing. That way you looked smart and cool because you meant to do it, instead of looking like you were just incapable of developing your own original story... I loved 'dramatize' too, as in "Great idea, but how do you dramatize that in 16 beats or less?"
As we continued developing our stories those first weeks, we hit several bumps in the road. Some of these came out of left field, like the day James Van Der Beek, who played the cerebral and self-effacing protagonist Dawson, walked into the story room looking like a linebacker. He looked this way because when he finished the football movie Varsity Blues, he didn't stop working out. So we had to write in that Dawson had been strangely 'lifting' all summer.
Kevin Williamson the writer did the best he could when confronted for the first time with the realities of making a full season of 22 TV episodes. This was not Buffy creator Joss Whedon who had a fully realized show on his hands and was fully prepared to take it somewhere else if the network screwed with him... This was the result of what post-Fin-Syn Hollywood was doing to gifted and promising writers in the late nineties. It was a result of the downfall of training that was once a fundamental part of culture at places like MTM... What you had in reality was a kid from the South with a cool personal story who had once sold a screenplay but who had never worked in network television before. With no mentor to help him, no experienced writer to train him, no studio to back him, with a powerful network that had an agenda and the only creative consistency coming from a producer who did not writer, Kevin was in a tough spot. He tried not to believe his own press. He tried to rely on writer's instinct and the passion that had got him there, but running a TV show takes a hell of a lot more than that, especially when you are on your own.
We would soon learn that kissing Kate Holmes was the franchise.
[#13 Adventures in Hair & Makeup]
In most businesses you work your war up, earning more and more each year, expanding your lifestyle and expenses accordingly... But none of this applies to the new TV writer... Professional sports is perhaps the only useful comparison. But even athletes don't all of a sudden one day discover the entire world thinks they have a talent and is willing to throw money at them. A kid who's drafted into the NBA has had a pretty good idea for quite some time that professional success was a real possibility. But in TV, one minute you're cranking out a spec in Starbucks wondering how much longer you can keep writing all day without having to start working behind the counter, and the next day you're putting a Warner Brothers parking sticker on the winsdhield on your new Saab and talking to Realtors in Marina del Rey. And because of all this, the sudden success and the seemingly arbitrary nature of it, the sense in TV writing that your success is all a big mistake never really goes away: 'How did I do it. This time they will find out I'm fraud!'
For a writer to work
on a troubled show, your career is not on the line. For one thing, everyone
around town knows it's a troubled show, and for another your agent is already
working on getting you another. The most important thing for a writer's
career is not the show, not the credit, it is to work hard, contribute
to the Room, write scripts that satisfy the showrunner -- basically to
get along. If you do these things you get good recommendations, your showrunner
and your colleagues want to hire you again, and good buzz follows you,
no matter how stupid the show.
However, if you are an actor on a stupid show, it's your face saying those stupid words. You become forever associated with them. Actors' businesses are the characters they are associated with, and if the characters on the TV show they are doing are not being cared for, they get tense.
On most TV shows, each episode is more often that not a negotiation of some sort with Standards & Practices. On Dawson's, we had cought on that the best way to get what we wanted approved was to leave material in drafts of scripts that we knew very well would never fly, simply to strengthen our negotiating position. The memoes from the network censors were remarkable... They sounded like this:
"Please reduce the number of 'craps' by half in this script and consider spreading the remaining ones over the next few episodes."
"Does the axe murderer have to use an axe? Please strongly consider less violent means for him to accomplish his task."
"If characters drink excessively they must get sick. Please make sure such sickness is dramatized tastefully."
"If you remove 'two damns and a hell' you may have the keg party."
"Many writers even made up words and phrases that the censors allow but are ultimately more objectionable than the more commonly known references they are replacing. On Dawson's, these new terms quickly joined the American lexicon of popular slang.
[#14 The New Reality]
The repercussions of
the almost-strike of 2001 ripped through the coming Tv seasons. In fact
we still feel the effects today... Back up about two years. On 16 August
1999, during the worst year yet for network television ratings, in the
summer, a time when very few people watch TV, and right at the same time
Dawson's Creek was struggling to reinvent itself and Sony and every other
studio in town was spending record sums on development and production,
a funny thing happened. A new show aired. A game show. It was in prime
time on ABC. And not only did people watch it, a lot of people watched
it, about 10 million of them. In fact, it was the highest-rated program
of the week not only in total viewers but also in the 18 to 49 demographic.
It was called Who Wants To Be A Millionaire?
...The truly amazing thing about it, particularly in the climate of bidding wars and eight-figure development deals, it cost nothing to make, barely half a million bucks per episode. A lot of the reason it was so cheap to make was because there were no union writers involved.
Inspired by the success of the unscripted Millionaire, CBS programmed Survivor in May 2000 and it was an instant smash... This was the official beginning of a new era for the Columbia Broadcasting System. Survivor not only proved that successful content could be made without writers, it was the first series to demonstrate the true power of making television in a vertically integrated conglomerate. Viacom, CBS's parent company, filled its radio stations and TV networks with spots for the new series. From MTV and VHI through several Infinity-owned radio stations, Viacom went after younger viewers that CBS could never have attracted if it had been on its own.
It's not that these
shows didn't use writers, it's that they didn't use WGA writers. You see,
'reality' is a bit of a misnomer for these programs... These new shows
were carefully conceived, staged and edited... The people who did these
tasks — storytelling tasks — were called editors or associate producers,
but they were essentially doing the exact same things that my colleagues
and I were doing. They put in long hours in a story room, brainstormed
story ideas, arced out long-term character progression, cast 'actors' based
on specific story needs... Although the 'editors' on Survivor did not write
the actual dialogue, they conceived and scripted scenes or scenarios...
The reality was that reality TV was about as 'real' as professional wrestling.
And the studios, of course, loved it, because not only was it popular and cheap, but the studios took no lip from labor about how they wanted to make it. According to the WGA, one reality writer worked between 12 and 20 hours a day at least 6 days a week... With no minumum salaries and no requirement to pay health and pension benefits, conditions on reality TV productions were very much like those from the 30s and 40s, or worse. Many productions were basically writer sweatshops.
Still, as cheap as reality shows were to make, they had some fundamental problems. First, they had no back-end value in syndication. Their DVD and aftermarket value was also limited... In addition, as popular as they were, broadcast audiences didn't last long. Unlike traditional scripted shows that often grew in audience share, the novelty of many of these early reality shows quickly faded.
On September 17, 2006, the WB network clsoed up shop. And on September 18, the CW network, composed of programming from the WB and UPN, launched. My last season on Dawson's, 2001-02, was the peak of success for the WB. After that time, it struggled to create and launch new shows. From 2003 to 2005, only the modestly successful One Tree Hill survived. Part of this was due to its aging audience, and part of it to the almost predictable result of putting branding ahead of good writing, something the WEB did not do when it first took on Buffy and Dawson's, before there was a *brand*.
I still love TV as much as I did in 1988, probably even more, though I've learned a few things since then. As of this writing, I get up every morning at dawn and head downstairs to spend the day writing, but not before giving my wife and daughters a kiss. You see, one of the most important things I learned in Hollywood is that some things are worth more than a billion dollars.
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