TV Writing & Social Responsibility – Can They Ever Live Together? Part 1

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by Diana Black

For us as the new generation of intrepid screenwriters attempting to write the next great spec pilot, what key elements do we consider in the creative development process – most likely a ‘What If’ session that focuses our deep fascination for a concept in relation to character and/or situation; such has been integral since the time of Aristotle. When it comes down to the nitty-gritty of realizing that glittering premise into a story-world rich with intriguing characters and hooks to entice the ‘suits’ into ‘talking mode’, does ‘inclusive writing’ figure in the ‘brainstorming’ stage and if so, in what way? Equally, do the terms – business, commodity and product come to mind?

It is probably safe to say that the #1 grumble of many a TV and film writer – regardless of their tenure, status in the industry or lack thereof, is the onerous task of having to pander to the ‘suits’ while trying not to compromise the original artistic vision. Somewhat galling considering that if it weren’t for writers creating amazing pieces of fiction, ‘big show business’ would most likely cease to exist. However, we’ve all received the warning from anyone willing to advise us, “Ignore the concept of commercial viability at your peril.” So it would seem we are beholden to serve and beyond that of just the story, if we want the writing gig. Perhaps our degree of compliance and sense of professional fulfillment will depend on what changes those with the cash want to make and why.

We are reminded by our esteemed tutor, Mr. Larry Brody, in Television Writing: from the Inside Out that television is indeed big business and that should we succeed in ‘breaking in’, we’ll have achieved the status of ‘team player’ with what makes it to the screen being a collaborative effort on behalf of many (p. 4). These various stakeholders, especially in free-to-air television and no matter where they are in the chain of command, they’ll demand substantial results and quickly because their professional careers are on the line. What’s driving this frenetic desire?

Fundamental to the success of commercial television is getting viewers to watch not only the program, but also the strategically timed commercial embedded therein. If a viewer is heavily engrossed, they’ll likely suffer the television commercials punctuating the narrative. In the case of non-commercial subscription channels, they’re on a mission to get and keep subscribers.

Both are dependent on writers coming up with an amazing story that has ‘legs’ with which to carry it through for at least a season’s-worth of episodes. So while we as writers may think that ‘the suits’ are just out to make our day harder, in truth everyone including those without a creative bone in their body – perhaps having an MBA instead, are beholden to somebody for the sake of turning a buck into two. Therefore we have little choice but to get on the bandwagon and find a balance between serving the needs of commercialism and remaining faithful to an unfettered imagination.

Mr. Brody also makes it clear that television programs have been considered synonymous with ‘product’ since the 1980’s (p. 3). Let’s unpack the term ‘product’. In relation to character, an actor, if they aren’t idolized from the get-go, may get lucky with viewer-feedback restrained to simply not liking the character’s clothing choice, hairstyle or ‘whatever’ and so the character ‘product’ is quickly altered. If the actor wasn’t aware beforehand, they sure are now. As ‘the talent’, they are objectified. If the aforementioned is not working at all on any level, the ‘darling’ is written out, pronto. What if after altering the individual components of ‘the product’ it still isn’t creating enough buzz and substantial viewership? Many a great program with a niche audience has been ‘canned’ and the entire unsuspecting team greeted one morning with, “Fare thee well and don’t let the door…”

Who dictates and signs off on modifications, multiple re-writes and chop-chop? Those of us who wear an actor hat as well, have probably at some stage, experienced the squabbling that can ensue between the Director, the Production Company and the Client/s, leaving ‘the talent’ to wait around – to freeze or boil; depending on the weather. The client/s may be bankrolling the entire program, paying for the privilege of having their television commercial/s aired throughout or, having their products strategically placed within the mise-en-scene. While all of this is going on, how is the writer doing? Are they managing to retain, at least in their own minds, any sense of artistic freedom over the eventual ‘product’ at this point?

In an ideal world one would like to think that every member of ‘the team’ at least in some way reflects upon ‘the product’ they are making available for consumers. It’s no wonder that many of them lie awake at night grappling with ‘how to’ and ‘to what extent’ must they pander to the needs or whims of the viewer. One sympathizes with the ‘show runner’, here’s hoping they get paid well.

In order to ensure as many ‘bums-on-seats’ in an environment of fierce competition, one way to captivate the potential consumer is to have an ensemble of characters, with at least one character being someone the viewer either admires, loves to hate (but doesn’t really) or identifies with in some way and voila! We have ‘Inclusive television’. Is this all it takes; an ensemble cast, focused through the lens of episodic storylines? Is the full range of established and emerging socio-cultural demographics being represented equally if at all, and if so, are such portrayals realistic? What about the commercial backing of television shows by self-interest groups; who may be unapologetic regarding the programs they are willing to fund. What about the socio-political agenda of the writers and/or ‘the suits’? Let’s explore what ‘inclusive writing for television’ really means in the second half of this article…