Earl Pomerantz has a really fascinating post on the question of ageism in the hiring of TV writers (Via Will). He notes that despite the recent victory by older TV writers who won a settlement from a major agency, it’s just not a simple question of discrimination: when advertisers and networks are mostly interested in reaching younger viewers, and when the style of television has changed, there’s a legitimate argument to be made that younger writers can best deliver what the networks/advertisers want. Of course, as he also goes on to argue, the networks and advertisers are being short-sighted by bypassing the older viewers who still like their product for the young viewers who aren’t that into network television.
This seems like a mistake, since the only audience still loyal to the network television brand is that very same older audience. Someday, perhaps, the business people will wise up and program for who’s watching – the older audience – instead of who they wish were watching – the otherwise engaged younger audience – in which case, the older writers are back in business.
One thing that confirms his thesis is that some of the cable networks are more willing than the broadcast networks to hire older writers; when David Milch (NYPD Blue) approached 60, he moved to HBO and created Deadwood, while when TBS wanted to do an old-style family sitcom (The Bill Engvall Show) they hired Michael Leeson, co-creator of The Cosby Show, to produce it.
If you don’t mind another one of my comparisons of TV today to TV 30 years ago, the age question isn’t really a new thing. The company that Pomerantz worked for in the mid-’70s, MTM, was arguably the most ageist TV content provider up to that point; it succeeded, in part, by freezing out most of the older writers who freelanced for other shows (the men and women whose names you can find on every show made in the ’60s and early ’70s) and instead hiring young writers and/or writers with no experience writing for episodic fiction TV. Most of their shows were created by guys under 40, who hired people even younger than they were. Other producers depended more on older writers; Norman Lear, already a showbiz veteran when he created All in the Family, turned to writers who were also veterans to staff the show, and that worked fine. But when his staff writers left in the mid-’70s, he re-staffed with even older writers, people who had been the head writers for Jack Benny and Your Show of Shows and other classics, and the writing took an unmistakable turn for the worse — not that these writers weren’t good and funny, because they were, but because their accumulated experience led them to write stories for Archie Bunker that were thinly disguised versions of stories they’d already written for other characters.
The point of that bit of semi-history is that one of the biggest fears about older, experienced TV writers is not just that they won’t connect to the young audience, but that they are just too experienced to come up with new and different stories. In this theory, the MTM theory, young writers are a better bet because: a) With a lack of experience, they’ll be less likely to write for this show the way you write for some other show, and b) They’ll be more inclined to do what the showrunner tells them. (A showrunner might fear that an older writer with a lot of experience might not respect his authoritah.)
The theory isn’t entirely wrong, because history shows that it’s not wrong; there’s a long tradition of experienced TV writers re-hashing the same story for different shows. And on the other hand, history also shows that it’s not entirely right, either: guys like Milch and David Chase, who were considered washed-up by the networks, proved that they had been coming up with new and different ideas, and the networks just didn’t want to buy them.