Why Becoming a TV Writer Is Both Easier Than Ever and Harder Than Ever

Why Becoming a TV Writer Is Both Easier Than Ever and Harder Than Ever
'30 Rock'Credit: NBC
With the advent of streaming, the definition of what "TV" is has changed drastically.

But those changes have also completely scrambled the DNA of how TV is written and produced as well.

Let's talk about what exactly has changed, what remains the same, and what it means for those of us who are just starting out. 

The good old days

For most of television’s existence, the shows themselves were underwritten by ads. Networks made their money based on the advertisements presented during the show so the more episodes you could produce, the more money you could make. Hence the old 22- or even 24-episode seasons. After all, more shows equal more ad slots and more revenue. (There was even a Fox show named for having 24-episode seasons… I forget what it was called.) 

The benefit of this model is that it was sustainable and predictable. Pilot season and staffing season were as regular in Los Angeles as fire season and awards season. (The true Four Seasons here.) TV writers generally knew that they would work 40 weeks out of the year. They could buy houses and plan vacations and live something resembling a normal life.

They also had residuals. So, every time an episode of TV was re-run, either on the same network or in syndication, the writer would get a portion of their episode fee again. This made the creators of shows incredibly wealthy, but it also meant that working writers had the income to support them during down times. With streaming, this has now all but gone away.

'I Think You Should Leave'Credit: Netflix

"You have been well trained, my young apprentice"

The other major benefit of this model is that, when it was working well, it functioned as an apprenticeship program. The showrunner felt it was their duty to help younger writers learn the ropes and eventually become showrunners themselves. So, the title hierarchy that exists in TV made more sense in practice. It’s a ladder that you climbed rung by well-paid rung.

You have the staff writer, story editor, executive story editor, co-producer, producer, supervising producer, co-executive producer, and executive producer (and the sort of slightly off-the-ladder consulting producer).

The general idea was that you would spend a year at each level, so the fastest timeframe until you could comfortably run your own show was 8 years of consistent work, during which time your responsibilities and knowledge base would grow. 

If you ever hear someone talk about “lower-level writers” they’re referring to those first three titles. Staff writer, story editor, executive story editor. “Mid-level writers” means co-producer, producer, and—up for debate—supervising producer. Upper-level means possibly supervising producer, but definitely co-executive producer or executive producer. It also used to describe your responsibilities. You were not necessarily expected to know the ins and outs of producing an episode of TV until your fourth year of doing the job. This was a real boon to many legendary future showrunners such as Damon Lindelof, Matt Weiner, Vince Gilligan, Mike Schur, David Chase, and so many others. 

But looking at those names above you can immediately see one of the major downsides of this business model—It’s all straight white men. So the streaming revolution brought not only shorter seasons, but more importantly, it brought the opportunity for new and diverse voices to have their own shows. You can see it in the explosion of varied artistic content from creators like Issa Rae, Phoebe Waller-Bridge, Michaela Coel, Ryan Murphy, the list goes on and on. 

'I May Destroy You'Credit: HBO

The tradeoff

But the switch to binge-able shows and shorter seasons has also meant a change in the way that writers' rooms operate. Where you used to work for 40 weeks on a 22-episode season, now you may only be working for 20 weeks on a 10-episode season.

And that may be your only job for the year. Or two.

Couple that with a lack of residuals, and you’re looking at young writers often making less than half what they used to. So you have an explosion of new diverse talent for the first time, but also talent that finds it harder and harder to make a real living. Of course, there are still plenty of writers who get two or three jobs per year and work on multiple incredible shows and make a wonderful living, but it’s a disservice to not acknowledge how lucky they are and that timing has to be in their favor. 

The other downside of this change within the writers' room structure is that most streaming shows write all of their episodes first and then move into a separate production phase. As such you now have “producer-level” writers who are finished working prior to production and hence never have a chance to learn budgets or casting or location scouting or how to work with actors.

It is not uncommon now to see a co-executive producer, an upper-level writer, who has hardly ever been on set and has only been working for four or five years. While faster advancement is great, especially for women and BIPOC who were left out for so many years, the issue is that when the time comes for them to create their own show, they have to rely on another showrunner to help bring their vision to life.

'Sex and the City'Credit: HBO

The showrunner shortage

Because you need a showrunner to—ahem—run the show, many studios now insist on having a showrunner attached before they will even buy a pilot, let alone greenlight a show. We’ve unintentionally created a new bottleneck for diverse creators to see their visions on screen because there are simply not enough writers with that level of experience available.

Hollywood is aware of this issue, but there hasn’t been a true attempt to rectify it. The very people at Netflix, Hulu, and Amazon that are actively changing the landscape of what TV is don’t necessarily have a plan for what to do next, and Hollywood does not like uncertainty. 

All of this is not to dissuade anyone from becoming a TV writer, or to moan for the halcyon days when only white men made shows about angry police officers, but only to say that the industry is in flux right now. If you have your heart set on writing for the smaller screen, go into it with your eyes open, and understand that it’s currently a bit more like the gig economy and not like the semi-stable, relatively anonymous job it once was. 

Let us know your thoughts in the comments.     

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