After a brief spate of new episodes that feels like it lasted only as long as your average commercial break, television is headed back into reruns again. The sets of many of the top rated television shows around are dark already, with many more going dark this week.
The general consensus is that this thing either gets wrapped up quickly, or it drags on until summer.
And it’s all because of the people involved in entertainment that, with the possible exception of production assistants, are the most underappreciated in an entire industry that is known far and wide for eating its young— The writers.
We’ve all seen the benefits of good writing vs. bad. I would urge anyone who doesn’t understand the value of good writing to check out the entire run of The West Wing. For the first four and a half years, the show was written almost singlehandedly by a man whose dialogue was so captivating that an episode about the markup of an appropriations bill (“The Stackhouse Filibuster”) was arguably one of the most captivating hours of television ever, with an emotional payoff at the end that was simply beyond the scope of Jack Bauer’s finest hour. When he quit, the next writer on the show was a putz that wrote a two part episode about the president quitting without a vice president and turning the White House over to the Speaker of the House from the other party without anything that had so much as the emotional gravitas of your average infomercial.
Or better yet, check out any of a number of brilliant BBC series. The BBC understands the value of writing when it comes to character development. Rather than a room full of writers cranking out 22-24 episodes per year, their seasons run only six to twelve episodes apiece— It allows the same writer to carry it from start to finish, ensuring that the character development, mood, and continuity are consistent from episode to episode.
Ben Affleck in a Kevin Smith movie = Emphasis on writing.
Ben Affleck in “Armageddon” = The film was halfway finished shooting by the time they had a fully functional shooting script.
Yet once again, the entertainment industry has found a way to screw over the people that create and craft the stories that they pass up no chance to pat themselves on the back for telling.
Among the problems— A new revenue stream has opened up for the television industry. Releasing an entire season of a TV series on VHS would have been a miserable undertaking. If you still have any videotapes at home, line twelve of them up against one another. That’s the space it would take up on a retailer’s shelf, and there was no way they were devoting that much to it— Particularly when one considers that, while blockbuster VHS tapes might have been only $20 apiece, most cost the video stores closer to $50-70 apiece. Anyone who’s ever lost something from Blockbuster and had to replace it can attest to that.
But DVD came along and changed that. My Season 1 of “24” takes up less shelf space than my hardcover copy of Les Miserables. And with an average price anywhere from $30-60 for a season of a TV show on DVD, they make sense for retailers and consumers.
But this revenue stream wasn’t available the last time the Writers Guild negotiated a contract. Nor was it even imaginable that a failed TV series like “The Black Donnellys” might live on in DVD.
The superstars of the field were able to negotiate that into their individual contracts when they signed on with the production company. But those are few and far between. The writers are expendable, right? Most television writers are struggling, and desperate to take jobs that allow them to entertain us and make a fair living at it. Jeph Loeb might get a cut of the DVD sales for the episodes of “Smallville” he wrote, and Tim Kring is likely getting the DVD cut for “Heroes”. But the rest of the guys in the room with them are not getting those same cuts.
This would be unthinkable for a music fan. Would someone record a cover of “Hold On, I’m Coming”, and not pay Isaac Hayes and David Porter their fair share? Can someone repackage and sell Patsy Cline’s “Crazy” on CD and not give Willie Nelson his due as a songwriter?
Yeah, I’m missing out on some TV I like, just like you are. But it’s damn important that the people that create the stories we love are given their due.
Hugh Laurie deserves credit for the brilliant job he does playing Dr. Gregory House. But someone planted every word of that witty dialog in his mouth.
And if a few months without any new original episodes of TV are the price to be paid to make sure that happens, then count me in.