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No Experience Wanted

Bob Shayne has won two Emmys and been nominated for a Writers Guild Award, two Edgars and a Grammy. He has recently been visiting screenwriting professor at the Newhouse School of Communications of Syracuse University

The first person who ever told me I was too old for the job was named Rick Rosner. It was 1970, and he’d taken over as producer of “The Steve Allen Show.” The previous season I’d been the staff member who found what we affectionately called “the kooks,” the eccentrics Steve had such a good time reacting to. Rick told me, “Your resume looks great, but I think I’ll have to find someone young who’ll work their tail off.”

I was 29 at the time. So was he.

So it struck me as ironic when I recently received the legal papers from the attorneys handling the class-action suit by older writers, including myself, against the television industry over age discrimination, that one of the other plaintiffs was Richard Rosner.

Ah, I thought, the lead for my L.A. Times piece. But it turned out not to be the same guy. Rick, who went on to become the creator-producer of “CHiPS,” is about to turn 60 and says he’s still in the game. No discrimination in his career. He sounded a bit desperate to me when he said that, but maybe it’s just my imagination. He also denied saying what he’d said to me 31 years ago.

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Richard, the other Rosner, now in his early 50s, told me a typical horror story of the writing jobs just stopping dead in 1990 after a 14-year network sitcom writing career. He moved to Arizona and went into a new career--in telemarketing. This spring, he was hired to write a TV episode, his first in 10 years.

The latest Writers Guild statistics--compiled in 1998--find that out of the 122 prime-time TV series, 77 of them did not employ a single writer older than 50. Five years earlier, only 19 of them didn’t. Over-50 writers make up one-third of guild membership, but only 5% of those writing on episodic comedies. Three years later, it can only be worse.

All 50 of the plaintiffs in the pending lawsuit against networks, production companies and major talent agencies were highly paid, long-time, consistently successful television writers--many earning six figures a year--whose careers were cut short in midlife for reasons that are hard to explain except by the word “discrimination.” Some were as young as 40 when the checks stopped coming in.

The first writer named in the suit is Tracy Keenan Wynn. In his 20s, Tracy was already a platinum-standard TV writer when I began writing in the mid-1970s. He started out by writing “Tribes,” the TV movie that put TV movies on the map. He went on to write “The Autobiography of Miss Jane Pittman,” “The Glass House” and the first of 17 “In the Line of Duty” movies. Today at 56, the father of three, two of them college-age, he’s living in a borrowed house in Aspen, Colo., having lost his $3-million home and been forced into bankruptcy.

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“I haven’t had a job in 17 months,” he says, well aware of the irony of the gracious landscape surrounding his personal poverty. “It’s a nightmare; I don’t know why it’s happening. I see movies on TV that I know, had I been able to get hold of, could have been so good. I see the mistakes, and I know how to fix them, but no one has asked me to.”

Tracy was represented for 12 years each by Creative Artists Agency and International Creative Management, two of the top talent agencies. His first agent retired a multimillionaire. His second, he says, “dis-invited me to be a client. I was told they felt there was nothing they could do for me and it was time for me to move on.”

Tracy noticed something was beginning to change in the late 1980s. “Somehow things were slowing down, but I didn’t know until last August that it wasn’t just happening to me.” That’s when he learned about the pending lawsuit and finally realized the 12-year decline in his career wasn’t “because I’d done something to [tick] somebody off.”

All of the writers in the suit can regale you with horror stories of not being taken seriously by the film and television industry to which they’ve more than proved their worth. Here’s one of mine: Five years ago, I wrote a screenplay called “Naomi Weinstein--Private Eye,” about a young Jewish woman in New York in 1953 who gets embroiled in the anti-Communist purge of the early TV industry. About the only negative response, among much positive feedback, was from a young woman named Lisa Moiselle who unfortunately worked for New York-based Miramax Pictures, run by Harvey Weinstein--unfortunate because Miramax was the most likely company to make such a film.

So I entered it in the New York Independent Feature Project script competition, figuring if it did well it would acquire some buzz. This aged, decrepit, out-of-touch, over-the-hill, washed-up, then-55-year-old TV hack was up against hundreds of edgy, fresh, happening, cutting-edge, twentysomething, Tarantin-ish screenwriters.

Well, I was one of the five finalists. (Or why would I be telling you this story?) I got a call asking if I would come to New York for the announcement party. At first I demurred, because in the previous two years, my dependable annual $150,000 income had suddenly shrunk to $7,000, I’d spent all my savings, lost my Malibu hillside house and gone heavily into debt. I couldn’t afford the trip.

But then I had an epiphany. “Is Harvey Weinstein going to be there?” I asked. The lady said, “We think so; he’s invited.” I caught a plane to New York and spent a nervous hour at the awards ceremony in Lincoln Center, ready to whisk the script from my briefcase. Weinstein never showed up. Upon my return, I wrote him a letter saying despite his story editor’s reaction, my script had just been chosen a winner at the IFP competition and asking him to please read it himself.

After repeated calls and faxes, I got a call back from a Miramax development vice president named Jack Leschner asking me to send the script, which I promptly did. Miramax never got back to me.

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Eventually I got a Miramax development assistant to track down what had happened. Without bothering to notify me, the company had rejected the script yet again. I asked if Harvey Weinstein had read it. He said no. I asked, who did? He said, “Lisa Moiselle.” They’d given it to the one and only person in the universe who had a vested interest in turning it down to read again.

Along with Tracy Keenan Wynn, probably the most prominent and prestigious dramatic TV writers when I was breaking in were Bill Blinn and the team of Richard Levinson and Bill Link. Blinn, now 63, wrote the pilots of “Eight Is Enough” and “Fame,” the award-winning TV movie “Brian’s Song” and, oh yes, “Roots.”

These days, the assignments don’t come so fast and heavy. “I’m working at the moment,” says Blinn, “but it’s been tougher the past 10 years. And there was a time in my 50s when I was bouncing around needing an agent and William Morris was joining the witness protection program.”

Link, with his late partner, was responsible for “Columbo,” “Murder, She Wrote” and TV movies including “The Execution of Private Slovik” and “That Certain Summer.” Like Blinn and Wynn, he answered his phone on the first ring.

“Today in TV,” he says, “they believe once you’ve hit 40 years old, you no longer can mirror young people 20 and under. So they don’t hire you. They don’t take into consideration that you probably have children that age, or that you might possibly remember when you were that age yourself.” Link is still writing and has a play about to be produced. “There’s very little ageism in theater,” he says. “In theater, they read the material, not the author.”

The equivalents of Wynn, Blinn and Link in the world of books would be names like John le Carre, Jonathan Kellerman, Stephen King, Patricia Cornwell, Sue Grafton, Amy Tan, John Grisham, Barbara Kingsolver, Ken Follett. As far as I know, they’re not having trouble getting work.

The excuse consistently cited to justify age discrimination (which the TV networks work hard to justify while they swear it doesn’t exist) is “audience age demographics.” The theory goes: The sponsors want younger viewers. We get young viewers by putting on shows about young characters. Who can write shows about young characters? Young writers. Ergo, let’s only hire young writers.

Let’s examine these assumptions. First, are younger viewers more valuable to advertisers than older viewers? I ask John Mattimore, director of media groups of ad agency OMD USA. He replies, “I don’t have any studies to support that younger audiences are preferable.” I call up Beth Uyenco, senior vice president and director of research for Optimum Media, another media-buying firm. Is it easier to persuade a younger person than an older person to change brands? I ask. “No, that’s really arcane thinking,” she says. “It’s not true anymore. People are much smarter shoppers than they used to be.” Bob Igiel, president of the broadcast division of the Media Edge, yet another media-buying firm, says, “It’s not true because younger people are essentially not brand-oriented. And I could mention lots of products not interested in people under 25.”

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The most earnest attack on age demographics comes from Alan Wurtzel, president of research and media development for NBC. “Age demographics ‘were invented back in the 1950s by ABC,” he says. “At the time, people over 50 were considered ‘empty nesters.’ Their children were out of the nest, so they didn’t need to buy so many products that people who were raising children did. But that was 50 years ago. It isn’t true today. People tend to get married later, to have children later, so that in their 50s, they’re living lives like their counterparts were living in their mid-30s and early 40s a generation or two ago.” Therefore, the concept of cutting off audience desirability at age 49 has become anachronous.

The next assumption: To get young viewers, you must program shows about young characters. Well, it certainly works when it works. “Friends,” about six characters in their early 30s, is the highest-rated sitcom on TV. Its creators/show runners, Marta Kauffman and David Crane, have publicly said that they only hire young writers. “When you’re 40, you can’t do it anymore,” says Kauffman in a Discovery Channel documentary. “The networks and studios are looking for young people coming in out of college.”

This is true as far as it goes, but it’s also disingenuous. Kauffman and Crane are the most powerful sitcom producers in television. They can have total control of who they hire.

Conventional wisdom says that older writers can’t relate to younger characters. But “Friends” is my favorite show and I’m 60. I used to think I was Ross. More recently I’ve morphed into Chandler. However, my feelings for Rachel, I say with some embarrassment, mirror those of Gunther. I completely identify with these characters. And if I can’t quite tell you every story point of every episode from memory, it’s because I have ADD, not Alzheimer’s. And, by the way, Kauffman and Crane, like most show runners, are over 40.

The make-or-break test for older writers seems to be show-runner status. If you’ve got it, you make millions. If not, you’re unemployable. It’s Hollywood’s version of the float-or-sink test they used to administer to accused witches. If you float, you’re a witch and we kill you. If you drown, you’re not a witch but you’re dead. Only in Hollywood, instead of killing you they give you a 13-episode on-the-air commitment.

The WB network’s programs reflect the belief that its targeted, 12-to 34-year-old viewers want dark, hip, edgy shows about teenage vampires, teenage aliens, teenage witches and just plain randy teenagers. And yet the biggest hit by far on the WB is not “Buffy the Vampire Slayer” or “Felicity” or “Dawson’s Creek,” but “7th Heaven,” a sweet, gentle dramatic series about a mother and a father in their 40s with seven children.

For the season, it averaged a 4.8 share with women 12-34, while the network’s prime-time schedule has averaged a 2.9. Among, female teens, the show did a 7.7 against the network’s overall 3.9. Oh yeah, and did I tell you the father on the show’s a minister? Sounds real dark, hip and edgy.

A very popular show on the youth-oriented cable channel Comedy Central stars a 56-year-old man who didn’t even look or act like a teen idol when he was 20. And he’s a Republican. His name is Ben Stein. “I’m a demographic powerhouse for young people,” says Stein, looking like a middle-aged Jewish business professor in his suit and tie and tennis shoes. “I’ve always had a great rapport with young people. I think it’s because they know inside my monotoned exterior I am a big kid.”

“Win Ben Stein’s Money,” the TV series in which he actually competes against the contestants, airs nightly, racking up good ratings and youthful demographics. “I think one of the reasons they like me is because I’m in real agony when I lose. They deduct it from my wages,” said Stein. He came to Hollywood in the mid-1970s after a stint in his 20s as a speech writer for Richard Nixon. “When I had to work late, my mother would bring me a hot dinner from home to the White House,” he says. “Nobody else’s mother at the White House did that.”

Stein, who’s not part of the lawsuit, soon became a hot young writer of features and TV movies. “I was selling scripts like a house on fire when I was in my 30s and early 40s, and then, wham! it was like all the doors closed. It just became impossible to sell one. When I first came to town, they said, ‘He’s fresh, he’s new, he’s got ideas.’ After a few years, I was old and experienced and knowing what I was doing. And apparently they didn’t want that.”

Do you have to be the same age as someone to relate to them? I ask. He responds, “When children go to a child psychiatrist, is it a child?”

Al Burton, co-creator and executive producer of “Win Ben Stein’s Money,” says that he’s celebrating his 56th birthday, but not necessarily for the first time.

The diminutive Burton began his career at age 12 by creating a radio show about and for Boy Scouts in Columbus, Ohio, and has specialized in youth-oriented programming ever since. In 10 years of working for Norman Lear, he supervised series including “One Day at a Time,” “Diff’rent Strokes,” “The Facts of Life” and “Mary Hartman, Mary Hartman.” Then under contract to Universal, he produced the series, “Charles in Charge.”

“Youth has always been what I do,” says Burton. “And I understand it, and so I have in my back pocket an escape from ageism.” Nevertheless, Universal and he parted ways in the early ‘90s. His mainstream network career dried up, but he’s managed to create a new youthful niche for himself in cable.

Even so, the concept that one must program for young people to be successful is a red herring. The No. 1 show this season, “Survivor,” is a hit across all age groups. It’s followed by “ER,” also an across-the-board hit, then comes the 18-49 mega-hit “Friends,” an older-skewing “Everybody Loves Raymond,” male-skewing “Monday Night Football,” across-the-board hit “The Practice,” the older-skewing “Millionaire,” new across-the-board hit “CSI: Crime Scene Investigation,” the older-skewing “Law & Order” and the 18-to-49 hit “Will & Grace.” Only two of the top 10 shows skew even slightly youthful.

If it were really true that the networks didn’t want the older-skewing shows on their schedules, they would cancel “Millionaire,” “West Wing,” “Once and Again,” “Everybody Loves Raymond” and “JAG” among others. Since they don’t, they can’t really get away with the argument that they must only hire young writers, even if it were true that only young writers can write for young audiences, which it isn’t.

The same holds true in movies. Last year’s box-office hits are all over the map demographically. “How the Grinch Stole Christmas,” at No. 1, had great family appeal. “M:I-2" and “Gladiator” skewed fairly young but were popular with all age groups. “The Perfect Storm” skewed older. “Meet the Parents,” “X-Men” and “Scary Movie” skewed young (despite the latter’s R rating). But older audiences made “What Lies Beneath” a giant hit, along with “Cast Away,” “What Women Want,” “The Patriot,” “Remember the Titans” and “Miss Congeniality.” And “Space Cowboys” did a very respectable $90-million domestic gross despite four stars with a combined age of about 260. Hit movies and TV shows hit various age groups. That hasn’t changed. It’s the culture in the industry that has.

Before the middle 1980s, a producer or a studio or network development VP would have a secretary and perhaps a story editor. And I, as a working TV and film writer with solid credits--but one who was by no means ever on the A-list, ever a member of “the old boys’ club,” or even represented by a major agency--could call up that producer, get him on the phone, and often end up with an assignment or sale.

I got most of these jobs for myself based on my credits, not social relationships. So even though I generally had an agent, and paid out some $250,000 to various agents over the years, I didn’t really need one to get work.

Today, I need an agent desperately.

However, to paraphrase Groucho Marx, today I can’t get an agent to represent me who I’d want to represent me. Why? Because over the past decade, using pure Pavlovian technique, the studios and networks, intentionally or not, have trained the agents at all the major and most minor agencies not to take on older writers.

It seems to work like this: You’re an agent. You have 12 clients. You send them all out to studio meetings, and you send out their scripts. The six younger clients usually get hired, and their scripts get bought. The six older clients usually don’t. This happens again and again. So you learn to drop your older clients. When other older writers come around looking for representation, you tell them you can’t take them on. As a result, most older writers with solid track records end up without agents.

The agents will be the first to tell you it’s all studios’ and networks’ fault. The agents are just responding to the marketplace. They say, “We’re only doing our job.” That’s known as the Nuremberg Defense.

There have been other important changes as well causing the current situation. Once computers came in, producers and studio execs no longer needed crackerjack typists. So they started combining the jobs of secretary and story editor. A new generation was flooding the industry, coming out of film, communications and business schools, and willing to accept ostensibly secretarial jobs, but only with some potential for advancement.

While other businesses were downsizing, TV networks, film studios and production companies, in a state of panic--from eroding ratings, rising costs and increased competition, a panic that hasn’t subsided--quadrupled the size of their development departments.

So today’s equivalent of the producer I used to get on the phone might now have a company president, two vice presidents, a director of development, a story editor, plus a few scattered “assistants.” (The S word is no longer acceptable.)

All the people in these jobs read scripts for the company, and most are between 21 and 35. Although the lower ranks may make as little as $20,000 to $30,000 a year and have virtually no authority, all except actual assistants are called, in our euphemistic society, “development executives.”

So now when I call the producer, she’s so busy interacting with her seven employees, networking with 20 of her counterparts, and keeping in good stead with the six studio executives she needs to get behind her next project (plus her foreign financing partners), the last thing she wants to do is get on the phone with me, a writer she’s probably never heard of because--despite all my credits and awards--I’m not young and happening and I don’t have an agent telling her, over drinks at the Sky Bar, how wonderful I am.

So she places me into the hands of her young gatekeepers, whose concept of time is very different from mine. Many of them simply aren’t interested in anything that happened before they were teenagers unless they see it on VH1’s “Behind the Music.”

Bill Blinn says, “I’m writing a movie for Showtime about Dick Gregory. And it’s amazing how many young people have no idea who Dick Gregory is.”

Maybe four years ago, I pitched doing a series of Charlie Chan movies starring Pat Morita to the then-president of original programming at USA Network, who was in his 40s. He loved the idea, but thought he’d better run it by his head of movies, who was in his 30s. He did, and the younger executive replied, “Charlie who?” That was the end of that sale.

You want an example of how the culture has changed? When I was circulating the “Naomi Weinstein” script, I faxed query letters to Richard Zanuck, who was then 61, and Lynda Obst, a generation younger, asking them to read it. The letters were identical. Zanuck called me up that afternoon and asked me to send it over. Obst--of whose films, by the way, I am a great fan--didn’t respond. So a few days later I called her up. Her assistant grilled me on who I was and what I wanted. When I explained, she said, “Writers don’t call producers, they have their agents do it, and if you were a professional you’d know that.” When I started to explain to her that I had 25 years of experience and awards on my wall, she hung up on me.

The old boys’ club has been replaced by a just as insidious young girls’ and boys’ club. Now that these twentysomething gatekeepers are no longer under their parents’ and teachers’ thumbs, it’s their turn to have a little bit of power--and the only power they have is to say no.

Is it ever deserved? Of course it is, all the time. By older writers as well as younger. But what’s important is all those times that it comes from arrogance, clubbiness, a sense of exclusivity, from a feeling of not having to take seriously those people who they don’t perceive of as hip. In short, to refuse to deal seriously with people who remind them of their parents.

One more story: I’ve been knocking on the doors of Nickelodeon for the past 16 months. I have an idea for a TV series about two teenagers working as interns in a TV newsroom that seemed to me perfect for Nick. And to make doubly sure it was fresh, hip and happening, I got two of my best, recently graduated writing students from Syracuse University, both 21 years old, to write the script with me.

Starting in December 1999, I called, wrote and faxed Doug Grief, Nickelodeon’s vice president of program development, to arrange a meeting. After three months of this, I got a phone call back from one of the lowest-ranking persons in the development department, a young woman with the title “creative executive,” which is one step above “assistant.”

I was very polite and gracious as I explained that as a writer-producer with 25 years of network experience and awards on my walls, I would like to schedule a meeting with her and her boss, Mr. Grief, rather than with her alone.

A week later I received a call from Mr. Grief. I was in heaven! But not for long. The call turned out not to be to schedule a meeting, but to tell me I had hurt his development executive’s feelings. What?! I beg your pardon?! It’s been a year and four months now and I still have not been able to get Mr. Grief’s attention with this idea and script.

I don’t mean to suggest that all or most of the young people in development are mean-spirited or untalented or insincere. They work very long hours for low money and then go home with 10 scripts to read. But many of them simply believe the hype.

They are led by a generation of producers and high-level executives who spread the word that old is bad and young is good, a bias based on their own insecurity about aging, inaccurate and out-of-date beliefs from advertisers, and panic over what used to be two competitors having turned into 200.

It is simply discrimination: choosing by class or group rather than individual merit. It was immoral when it was used against women. It was immoral when it was used against blacks. And it’s no more moral or right or deserved when it’s directed today against a generation of writers, male and female--and many older professionals in many other fields--who have proved, time and again, by the products they’ve produced, that they are more than able to do the job.

I, for one, feel like a blacklisted writer in the 1950s, only I didn’t have to sign anything, join anything or march in anything to get that way.


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