How television writing became an endless job

For the six years he worked on “The Mentalist,” beginning in 2009, Jordan Harper’s job was much more than just writing. He and his fellow writers’ room on the weekly CBS drama were heavily involved in the production. They focused on the costumes and props, continued the set, and gave feedback to the actors and directors. The job lasted most of the year.

But by 2018, when he worked on “Hightown,” a drama for Starz, the TV writing job changed dramatically. The writers spent about 20 weeks preparing scripts, at which point most of their contracts had expired, leaving many scrambling for additional work. Supervision of filming and editing largely rests with the director, writer and producer responsible for the series.

“On a show like The Mentalist, we’d all go to the set,” Mr. Harper said. “Now the other writers have been cut. Only the showrunner and maybe another writer are being kept on board.”

Separation of writing and production, increasingly common in the era of broadcasting, is one of the issues at the heart of a strike launched in May by nearly 11,500 Hollywood writers. They say the new approach requires more frequent job changes, makes their work less stable, and reduces writers’ earnings. Mr. Harper estimated that his income was less than half of what it was seven years ago.

While their union, the Writers Guild of America, has He sought guarantees that each show would hire a minimum number of writers throughout the production process, the major studios said such proposals were “not compatible with the creative nature of our industry”. The Motion Picture and Television Producers Alliance, which bargains on behalf of Hollywood studios, declined to comment further.

Actors union SAG-AFTRA, which went on strike last week, said its members have also felt the effects of the broadcast era. While many acting jobs have long been shorter than writers’ jobs, the guild’s executive director, Duncan Crabtree-Ireland, said the studios’ “extreme level of efficiency management” resulted in roles being broken down into smaller chunks and compressing characters’ story lines.

But Hollywood isn’t the only industry that has presided over such changes, which reflect a long-running pattern: the division of labor into “many smaller, more degraded, lower-paying jobs,” as labor historian Jason Resnikoff puts it.

In recent decades, this shift has also affected highly trained white-collar workers. Large law firms have relatively fewer equity partners and more attorneys outside the standard partner track, according to data from ALM, the legal media and intelligence firm. Universities employ fewer tenured professors as a share of faculty members and more unqualified teachers. Big tech companies hire relatively fewer engineers, while raising armies of temps and contractors to test software, name web pages, and Do low-level programming.

Over time, said Dr. Resnikoff, an associate professor at the University of Groningen in the Netherlands, “you get the work force graded of super-workers and lesser workers” — fewer officers, more grunts. The writers’ experience shows how destabilizing this change can be.

The strategy of breaking down complex jobs into simpler, lower-paying tasks has its roots in meatpacking and processing. At the turn of the 20th century, cars were largely produced in an artisanal fashion by small teams of highly skilled “ubiquitous” mechanics who helped assemble a variety of components and systems – ignition, axles, transmissions.

By 1914, Ford Motor Company had split and subdivided these jobs over and over again, spreading more than 150 men across an extensive assembly line. The workers usually performed some simple task over and over again.

For decades, making TV shows was similar in some ways to the early days of the auto industry: A team of writers would be involved in all parts of the production. Many of those who wrote the scripts were also standbys, and often helped edit and polish the show into its final form.

The book says the “everything” approach has multiple benefits. Not least: improved display quality. “You can write a voice in your head, but if you don’t hear it,” said Erica Weiss, co-host of CBS’s “Red Line,” “you never really know if it’s working.”

Having her writers on set, Ms. Weiss said, allowed them to rework lines after the actors’ table reading, or rewrite a scene if it was suddenly moved indoors.

She and other writers and dissidents said the system also taught young writers how to moderate a show—essentially preparing apprentices to become the master craftsmen of their day.

But it’s increasingly rare for writers to be on set. As in manufacturing, the task of making TV shows is broken down into more separate tasks.

On most broadcast shows, writers’ contracts expire before filming begins. Even many cable and network shows are now seeking to separate writing from production.

“It was a good experience, but I just didn’t get to go on set,” said Mae Smith, writer for the final season of the Showtime series “Billions.” “There was no money to pay me to go, even for a well-established seven-season show.”

Showtime did not respond to a request for comment. industry analysts point out Studios have felt a growing need to rein in spending amid the decline of traditional television and pressure from investors to focus on profitability over subscriber growth.

In addition to potentially affecting the quality of the show, this shift has affected the livelihoods of writers, who end up working fewer weeks a year. Syndication data shows that the typical writer on a network series worked 38 weeks during the season that ended last year, versus 24 weeks for a streaming series — and only 14 weeks if the show hasn’t received a green light yet. About half of the writers now work in broadcasting, where almost no original content was created just over a decade ago.

Many have also seen their weekly paychecks dwindle. Chris Keser, co-chair of the Writers Guild Negotiating Committee, said studios typically paid writers well above the minimum weekly rates negotiated by the union as compensation for their role as producers—that is, to create a dramatic universe, not just to complete parochial assignments.

But because the studios cut writing out of production, they pushed writers’ salaries closer to the weekly minimum, essentially curtailing production compensation. According to the union, nearly half of writers were paid the weekly minimum last year — about $4,000 to $4,500 for a junior writer on a pre-approved show and about $7,250 for a senior writer — up from a third in 2014.

Writers also receive residual payments — a kind of royalties — when an episode they write is reused, such as when it’s licensed for syndication, but they say the opportunities for residuals have narrowed because broadcasters don’t usually license or sell their shows. The Motion Picture and Television Producers Alliance said in its statement that the writers’ recent contract has significantly increased residual payments.

(Actors get hangovers, too, and say their salaries have been affected in other ways: The broadcast era creates longer gaps between seasons, as regular characters aren’t paid but often can’t commit to other projects.)

The combination of these changes turned the writing profession on its head. With writing jobs ending more quickly, established writers must seek new positions more frequently, which puts them in competition with less experienced colleagues. And because more writing jobs pay the bottom line, studios have a financial incentive to hire at least two more well-known writers, preventing their rise.

“They can get a very experienced writer for the same price or a little more,” said Mr. Harper, who considers himself fortunate to have found success in the industry.

The book also says that studios have found ways to limit the duration of their jobs beyond isolating them from production.

Bianca Sams, who has worked on shows including the CBS series “Training Day” and the CW show “Charmed,” said many junior writers are assigned to the writers’ room just before the cubicle ends, leaving a smaller group to finish the season’s scripts.

“If they have to pay you weekly, at a certain point it gets expensive to keep people,” Ms. Sams said. (Wages for entry-level writers are more closely tied to workweeks than to episodes.)

Studios took offense at writers describing their work as “gig” jobs, saying most were guaranteed a certain number of weeks or episodes, and received substantial health benefits and pensions.

But many writers fear that the long-running trend is for studios to break their jobs into smaller chunks that are bundled together by a single renderer — the way a project manager might stitch together programs from the work of a diverse group of programmers. Some worry that writers may eventually be required to rewrite drafts generated by the chatbot.

“I think the end game is to create material in the cheapest, most piecemeal, automated way possible,” said Zed Dorn, a member of the Writers Guild who oversees the master’s degree program in Screen and Stage at Northwestern University, and “having one layer of high-level design take material that was produced on the cheap and turn it into something.”

He added, “It’s the way programmers write code — the most drone-like way.”