This month, a majority stake 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 were being canceled. The sale caused a lot of consternation from fans worried about the future of their favorite shows. But as a television writer working for 20 years, I was alarmed for a completely different reason.
The former CW’s death is just the latest sign of a television industry pivoting from the world of scripted shows to broadcast networks. The streaming system is eliminating the jobs of many writers currently working and eroding the ability to train and mentor the next generation of employees, leaving many unprepared to run their own shows. In trying to save a few dollars, the industry is actually eating its own seed corn.
Here’s how the employment calculation works. A show airing with a full season order of 18 to 23 episodes typically has a staff of eight to 12 writers, from writer to executive producer. Additionally, a show’s script assistants and coordinators are often assigned a standalone script or story, which serves as a sort of audition for future work as a writer.
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Working on a show that airs over multiple seasons can provide these staff members with a measure of financial stability in a notoriously party-and-starvation industry, and can provide a pathway to progress in title and responsibility as they gain more experience. . As writers move up the ranks of a network show, they are also often called upon to work with the crew and participate in the pre- and post-production stages of the show’s making. This is how they can learn to deal with production limitations, budgetary issues, actors’ egos and other critical aspects of television creation. On the CW superhero show “Arrow,” for example, Beth Schwartz started out as a writer’s assistant and, by its seventh season, ran the show as executive producer.
Many of the most acclaimed writers and showrunners of the “Golden Age of Television” cut their teeth in television broadcasting. One of ‘The Sopranos’ creator David Chase’s first jobs was writing about ‘The Rockford Files’, and before ‘Lost’ and ‘Watchmen’ saw the light of day, Damon Lindelof wrote for the Don Johnson’s detective show “Nash Bridges”. ”
What if popular DC superhero shows migrate from The CW to Warner Bros., Discovery’s own streaming service? For one thing, a lot of writing jobs will disappear. Although shows such as “Supergirl” or “The Flash” may employ up to a dozen writers for their 22 episodes per year, seasons will likely be shortened on a streamer. Many premium cable and streaming shows with shorter seasons operate with half a dozen or fewer writers on staff, often working under shorter contracts. And all eight episodes of the first season of HBO Max’s “Peacemaker” were written by the series creator.
For established writers, jumping between eight-episode streaming shows, sometimes several times a year, is a more financially precarious system. And newcomers to the industry who get a writing job have fewer opportunities to learn other aspects of the business. In the streaming model, all episodes of a show are typically written before production, with the showrunner often being the only member of a writers’ room to remain during filming post-production.
That means screenwriters who grow up in the new system get executive positions after often writing only a handful of episodes — never having set foot on set, spoken to actors and directors, or faced a budget allocation. While experience can’t guarantee a good product and there are examples of newcomers who were brilliant showrunners from the start, it’s increasingly common to hear stories of people with no production experience incurring huge cost overruns and delivering unusable episodes.
I worry about a future in which these systems will increasingly be the norm. In addition to reduced opportunities for new writers, staffing the same people across multiple shows can have a homogenizing effect on what we watch. By slashing season orders and staff and cutting the tie between writing and production to save on budgets, people running streamers and entertainment conglomerates can end up destroying training and training infrastructure. advancement that made possible the revival of scripted television 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