Glad You Asked Department 6/24/13
Today’s question comes from Lew, who wastes no time:
I am past age 50 but love to write. Does TV discriminate age wise?
And here’s today’s answer, in which I also try to waste as little time as possible…because we get older each minute, right?
Damn right there’s age discrimination in the television biz. Not just regarding writers but actors, producers, directors, even assistants. There’s also discrimination against women and people of color. A look at various employment stats, many of which we’ve published here on TVWriter™, easily establishes that.
A lot of people in TV will acknowledge the problem. They’re the kind of people I respect. More people deny it. I’m not real thrilled with them. And a large percentage of people in the biz just plain ignore it – because what else can you do?
A few years ago, I was part of a huge dollar amount lawsuit brought by television writers against a multitude of networks, studios, production companies, and agents. After about a dozen years of back and forth, a mutually unsatisfactory monetary settlement was reached, which in my experience is pretty much the way all legal/financial settlements go.
As I remember it (and I could be remembering incorrectly so if anyone out there has better info please let me know) throughout the years the suit dragged on many of the defendants informally admitted to, at the very least, not wanting to work with writers who were over 40.
They came up with all sorts of justifications:
“Older writers are out of touch with the young audience we’re aiming at today.”
“Older writers don’t have the energy and stamina to make it through the minefield of today’s television seasons.”
“Older writers can’t commit to all the time, effort, and devotion that it takes to be on staff because they have other obligations like, you know, families and such.”
“I’m uncomfortable in the presence of older writers.” And its corollary: “I feel bad when I have to give notes to a writer who’s older than I am. It’s like criticizing my father or mother.”
Regardless of what business you’re in, you’ve probably heard similar statements before. If you work for almost any company with more than a dozen employees you know the drill. Company culture wants to come first. It’s all about productivity, and your employers making the best – and most – use of your time. The attitudes above exist as a basic underpinning of our current society.
But, Lew, naive and crazy as I undoubtedly am, I still believe there’s hope for you in TV. The thinking behind not wanting to hire someone new who’s already gone through (or worse, is going through) a midlife crisis/menopause still comes down to the thinking that’s behind hiring anyone, “What’s in it for my company? What’s in it for me? What can this employee give me that no one else can?”
And, fortunately, talent, knowledge, and skill play a crucial role in TV writer productivity. (And will until some young genius programmer comes up with just the right algorithm for programming computers to successfully do the work of facing-the-blank-page.) This means that you have the chance to demonstrate exactly what you can bring to your television employer that no one else can: Your ability to write the best possible script for whatever series you’re trying to land at.
The “easy” way to do this would be to already have a great career and reputation as a writer in some other area, like books, the stage, the web. Yes, the web works as a door into TV these days. If you’ve written a highly successful blog, your name can light up a lot of eyes. If you’ve written (and maybe even directed) a highly successful web series those eyes can get even brighter. Going viral works. We write about viral successes here all the time.
In other words, if there’s one thing television executives understand and appreciate, it’s the value of working with people who already have some sort of fame. It’s showbiz that created that value, after all.
There’s a “hard” way to get into the biz that just about everyone who comes to TVWriter™ already knows. That, of course, is by writing the best damn spec episodes of existing TV shows ever and getting them onto the hard drives of the right people. As an older newbie you have to be exponentially better at the writing thing than anyone else, including current insiders, but even if the current insiders have slacked off a bit over time they had to prove the same thing or they’d never have gotten where they are.
(No, I can’t define what “better” means. Let’s assume that the traditional definition of “good” applies – “It’s something my boss will like” – and extrapolate from there.)
Oh, there’s one more thing you need to know, and this applies regardless of your age. Over the years I’ve discovered that all of showbiz, including TV, is easier to understand if you think of it as a cult. You’re not just applying for a job, you’re trying to get into the MEC – the Mass Entertainment Cult.
That means that in addition to the above, the executives, like all cult higher-ups, are looking for people who are as much like themselves as possible. People who share the same values and beliefs and express their attitudes the same way the higher-ups do. This means doing some homework so that you can pick up on what’s important within the biz and what isn’t.
But once you’re armed with this info you can can perform a very special kind of networking, ingratiating yourself with insiders who will consider you to be the kind of man or woman they not only want to work with but befriend. The hiring friends thing is huge in every business, and it may well be the most important single aspect of working in this one. Can a man or woman over 50 be considered a friend by a 30 year old network veep? Absolutely. I’ve seen it happen again and again.
Rereading this, I can’t help but think that I’ve just thrown out a whole lotta shit here for you to go through, Lew. But I think that if your demons are driving you to write TV, then it’s all definitely worth doing. Especially now, today. Because I absolutely believe that scripted television fiction is on the whole better than it’s ever been since TV became a true mass medium. And I’m hoping that people like you can make it even better.
My purpose here is to help as many undiscovered creative geniuses as possible. But I can’t answer if you don’t ask. So send your questions and make everyone’s day!