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Answer from Anthony "Tony" Lawrence, Writer & Producer, Elvis.
It’s different in a couple of major ways. One, of course, is that back then it was all a story. Each week was a different story. They were the same characters but they got into different situations. Today, there is a lot of episodic soap continuing stories. That’s why they staff most shows now, because the staff can all be involved in writing. They know how to make the characters move through many different situations. They can look at it all together. Back then, everyone was a freelance writer and that’s a major difference in television writing today. It’s the reason why I wrote more episodes of different shows than any other writer in Hollywood. I was writing furiously and I was also able to adapt to all of these different genres. We were freelance. Today, writers are pretty much attached to a series until it fails or goes off the air. They then go to another show and stay there for a while. They write mostly for their show, so my experience and background are much more varied than most of the writers today.
Answer from Joel Rogosin, Writer, Producer & Director, Magnum, P.I..
When I started in television, I was the youngest producer in town. Now, if you were that age, you’d be running studios. I was 28 in the 60s and the routine was 39 shows and 13 reruns. There were very few entrepreneurs; the shows were generated mostly by the studios and were mostly run by a producer, maybe an assistant producer/story editor, a secretary and an assistant producer. Period. We did 39 hours a season, every season. Virtually alone, I did 39 episodes of Sunset Strip and there wasn’t a huge staff of writers at all. Most of the producers were writers.
The whole producing concept is very much misunderstood, I think, even today. There are entrepreneurial producers who create their own shows and run them, there are producers who work for hire and there are line producers, who are basically production managers but have producer credit (which they are able to negotiate for). In those days, there were very small production units and very simplistic shows. The budget for shows like Sunset Strip was about $70,000 for black and white shows out the door. Finished. If you went over $5,000 or so, you were in deep trouble (now, of course, an episode is millions of dollars). Because of the way the shows were set up and the way the industry was set up, there was a huge market for freelance writers. As I said, teams of writers didn’t staff the shows like they do now, so the freelance writing market was how you broke into the industry. And (usually) if you wrote fairly well for a given series, you were re-hired. If the show really ran, you would wind up being on a staff. The freelance market virtually is non-existent now because all the shows, as you’ll tell from the credits, have teams of writers. They don’t all have writing credit – sometimes they say “executive producer,” “associate producer,” “coordinating producer,” “and consulting producer.” Those are all writers who usually negotiate for credit for a little more money and a little more prestige.
Today, writing teams project the bible for their show weeks ahead and there’s a serialized aspect to the show as well as a plot structure that stands on its own for each week. When I was working, there was no sense of personal life for the characters on the shows – they just showed up for the hour they were on the air with no life and no context for them at all. I was the only one (as far as I know) who made a deal with the Writer’s Guild to have a series of drop-ins written, dramatizing the personal life of characters against the ongoing story that was being told week after week. They stood on their own, and I could drop them into an ongoing plot at anytime that I wanted for whatever reason. I thought it was a way to give the running characters a life outside of the context of the show. But the shows today (I think of Grey’s Anatomy as an example) have characters that are involved in life and death situations week after week, but they all have ongoing lives of their own outside the hospital that count for something. It gives shows a much richer culture and a much richer texture than they used to have years ago.
Another thing is that entrepreneurs became en vogue. They were the writer-producers who created, produced, and ran their own shows. If the shows were successful, they were able to spin other shows off of those shows (like Steven Bochco, Shonda Rimes and Don Bellisario, who at one point had about four or five shows on the air). The success of any one of their shows gave them the ability to create franchises for other shows where the networks say, “We know him, we know he’s successful, we know his name counts for something with actors, let’s give him another show.” It’s almost automatic if you have one successful show.
One thing that happened years ago, about the time that I started working, was syndication: the concept of selling shows station to station rather than through the network, which was unheard of at the time. It depends on who you talk to, but people say a couple of agents created this concept. Then, it was ABC, CBS, and NBC. Period. That was the market. Now with cable, there are hundreds of markets and those that started out being more specialized are now branching out so that they have things like movies of the week. Netflix is also producing programs. It’s just a totally different situation. Syndication came in vogue in the 60s, but people laughed at it because they didn’t have any sense of what the back end (future profits) was going to look like. But in syndication, when they were able to go out and sell their shows piecemeal, station-by-station, it created a huge back end. The shows that came off the network were shows that were created for syndication. A lot of us, who were beginner writers at the time, wrote for those shows. They were cheap and they were willing to hire brand new people because they had a lot of volume and a lot of turnover. Tony Lawrence and I both started separately in syndication with inexpensive half hour shows and actually wrote the same shows without knowing each other at that time. There was a syndicated market and there was the off-network syndicated market, where you could take shows that had run their course on the network and sell them piecemeal. That became (and still is) a very lucrative market.
Price structure was also totally different. While we used to spend $70,000 on a single episode, a single actor on an episode of a series now can make a million dollars. I did a series called The Virginian and Lee J. Cobb (terrific actor) was one of the stars in it. At that time, he made more money per episode than anyone else in town. He made $18,000 an episode. Now, Charlie Sheen gets two million dollars.
The technology was similar, but much more simplistic. It became more and more complicated as production for motion pictures, TV movies (which kind of bridged the gap) and television became similar. You started being able to see TV movies that could have become feature movies. Or see a feature movie, had it been done in a very different way for less money and less production value, that could have been a TV movie. The whole era of TV movies, which started in the 70s, was a big turnaround in the business. It was a whole new concept, because they weren’t quite big enough for the big screen, but they were marketable for another arena. At that time, there were several anthology series that had single sponsors like Kraft, Chrysler, GM and so forth. That doesn’t exist anymore. Now, it’s all these commercial-spot announcements.
Also, there was more of a feeling of family. People were professionals, but there was a spirit of camaraderie, fun and not taking one’s self and what we were doing too seriously. I think that’s probably different now. I don’t know if that spirit, that family feeling or that fun still exists the way it did then. The whole industry now is corporate driven and not an industry that was designed and built by individual men. When I started, Harry Cohn was still running Columbia, Jack Warner was still running Warner Bros. The individual men who created the business, the original people who started the networks, they were still there running everything. Interestingly enough, I started at Warner Bros. They had an enormous number of shows in the 60s and they were very popular. Warner Bros supplied the entire ABC primetime network because a couple of guys at ABC and Warner were friends. Virtually, on a handshake, ABC said, in effect, “We’ll take all your programs” and Warner said, “We’ll give you all our product.” So the whole ABC primetime lineup, at that time for some years, was Warner Bros shows (Maverick was one of the shows that was very big). They had Western and Detective shows- 77 Sunset Strip, Hawaiian Eye, Surfside 6, Cheyenne, Sugarfoot, Colt .45, etc. It was a great time of productivity for the writers and for the studios.
Answer from Irma Kalish, Producer & Writer, Good Times.
What I’ve noticed today is that there are fewer television comedies. The emphasis seems to be more on the reality shows and heavy drama and sports, but I think that has always been the case. I bemoan the lack of good television comedies, and I emphasize good. Perhaps in the older days they were more shows tuned to family comedies. They were comedies for the family to enjoy together as they sat around the television set. That for me is the main difference.
I recently had occasion to talk to a young woman who works in television and it seems the actual work put into television shows has changed. She works on a cable show where there are maybe four people that are on staff: a producer, a head writer, and two other writers. We had many more people on our team before we left television. We would all sit at a writer’s table, myself at one end and Rocky (my husband and writing partner) at the other. There were times where we had 12 or 14 people in there pitching an idea that would work with the story line. I asked my friend, “How do you deal with people who come in to pitch stories?” She said, “We don’t have anyone come in to pitch stories. It’s all staff written.” So that is a difference too. The pitch was definitely a big thing. We also did a lot of work with freelance writers. This gave a chance to people who could be writers and might be writers one day, to come in and pitch and that you could help them develop into one that fit in the format of your show.
Also, we worked in front of a live audience. When we did a show, we had a set that we would use for every season. It was there all the time and was never taken down. I know today there isn’t typically a live audience for taping and shooting. We would have three or four hundred people in the audience and we would do two shows per day. The first show, which we called the “prelim,” and then the 7 o’clock show. We would tape both shows, each in front of a new audience. If a joke didn’t work in the prelim, we would re-write it for the second taping. But everything we did, we did for the audience in order to make the show as funny as possible.
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