I had a meeting this past week for staffing. Yes, yes good for me in the general sense, but after over a decade I’m still staff level so what the fuck happened to my career? But I digress. My manager informed me she was going to NYC for upfronts again. Really? Is it May already? I had forgotten all about upfronts. A reminder for anyone else who has forgotten, television upfronts are the yearly to-do networks make showcasing their new and returning fall programming to advertisers hoping to get them to throw their commercial bucks their way. It’s a crap shoot, after all who knows how the fickle television audience will commit their viewing time. Back in the day – say 2010, this was the biggest fucking deal. There were gala events with top billed actors and balloons and champagne to woo the buyers. Pilots were picked up to series with an eight to ten episode commitment. Writers rooms were opened and the frenzy to get staffed was chaotic and electric.
Not so much now. Oh, there is still chaos and frenzy, but the electricity has given over to apathy. After all, network and basic cable viewership has been in a steady decline since DVR, VOD and streaming options have increased. An argument can even be made that devices have made the TV itself as an appliance obsolete (gasp!)
See, when network TV was the only game in town programs were “appointment viewing.” Audiences scheduled their activities on the coach for the Thursday night NBC line-up of Friends, Seinfeld, Will & Grace and Law & Order and the TGIF family sitcom juggernaut on ABC. This may explain why Will & Grace is coming back and why the TGIF line-up was similarly updated (Fuller House and Girl Meets World. Really? Yes, really.)
Pay cable’s frequent multiple repeats, changed the game. The Sopranos? – Fageddaboudit. That’s appointment viewing in the millennium – watch once, then tune in three hours later and five more times during the week in case you missed something. The habit passed on to basic cable with Sunday nights on AMC. Mad Men was written into appointment books, and don’t lie, I know it’s not just me.
Networks couldn’t keep up. Pay cable and web streaming don’t really do the advertiser thing. In today’s terms, the binge is the thing. I admit guilt but no shame in watching eight hours of Orange is the New Black on my iPad while flying and changing planes then capping it off with another three hours of Game of Thrones on my phone. On. My. Phone. Thank you, HBO Go.
Okay, Gayle, what does that have to do with upfronts for the emerging screenwriter, you ask? Well, advertisers are spending their money differently on TV, to include streaming and watching across multiple devices. So that means networks are ordering fewer episodes per season. The original twelve order with a back nine at mid-season is a dinosaur. Fewer episodes means fewer writers. Fewer writers means less money to hire down the list. That means the staff writer is an after thought. Not good for us.
As emerging writers in television we must be aware of how drastically the game has changed. We can no longer rely on our representation to get meetings with show runners unless a) our representation represents the showrunner or b) we are the contact to the showrunner. Most staff writers are people they already know. That’s part of the package.
I know, I hadn’t expected this to turn so dark, but that is our reality. Emerging TV writers – network, network, network. The more people who know who you are and what you do, the better chance to get the meeting in today’s year-round TV cycle.
It is a Golden Age of Television. That means more opportunities, but those opportunities are not coming to us, we must create our own. Network and basic cable upfronts are a very nice week of parties and enthusiasm for those involved, but for those of us still seeking a way into the room they really do not matter. Not a lick. Write a great pilot. And a back-up great pilot. Then get it to someone who knows a showrunner-level writer. That is the best (and unfortunately may be the only) way to score that staff writer job.