Scriptwriters twiddle thumbs as US turns to cheap 'n' cheesy TV

Click to follow
The Independent US

Once upon a time, American television was crass, but at least if you were a half-decent writer you could sell your soul to a sitcom or prime-time drama series and rake in a whole pile of money.

Once upon a time, American television was crass, but at least if you were a half-decent writer you could sell your soul to a sitcom or prime-time drama series and rake in a whole pile of money.

All of a sudden, it's not so obvious. A new wave of crassness has lapped over the network airwaves, a wave of cheesy "reality" shows and low-rent quiz programmes that have become unaccountably popular. They cost little to produce and - crucially - do not require the services of writers at all.

Which explains why Monica Piper, a successful sitcom writer, is spending more time with her eight-year-old son these days. And why she is feeling strangely nostalgic for those 2am script conferences where men toss out crude sexual innuendos, steer the plot along puerile avenues involving chocolate-stained underpants that look just like you-know-what, and, as she puts it, "suddenly decide it's too far to go outside the room to fart".

"You'll do anything to get a job, even if it's a show you hate, because you can count on taking home $5,000 a week. The beauty of it is clearly the money," she said. "But all of a sudden my friends are either busy writing spec scripts at home or else standing behind the counter at Macy's."

Roughly a third of previously occupied prime-time television writers - about 200 people - are now without a regular posting, most of them laid off in the most recent "staffing season" of April and May, the months when the networks preparefor the autumn line-up. Scripted programmes are out of favour and there are no immediate plans to bring them back.

The rot began to set in last autumn, when ABC imported the concept of ITV's Who Wants to Be a Millionaire? and turned it into the broadcasting phenomenon of the year. With the ratings still sky high, the network recently gave the show a fourth night in the week - a decision that risks overkill but represents a staggering $100m (£68.5m) in extra advertising per episode.

When quiz shows floated by ABC's rivals failed to take off, they, instead, took the reality show route. CBS's Survivor - a riff on Castaway in which a motley bunch of attention-seekers plays a version of the balloon game on a remote desert island while subsisting on meals of barbecued rats - has become the ratings sensation of the summer. A second series has already been ordered for the autumn, and a flurry of copycat programmes is in the works.

All of which is terrible news for writers. It's bad news for actors, too, although as so few of them have regular contracts on TV shows the impact is less noticeable. Network executives, meanwhile, are thrilled, incredulous at how cheaply they can produce a hit show.

There have been some misses along the way. Fox's recent foray into reality programming, Who Wants To Marry a Multimillionaire?, ended in disaster when the couple who wed sight unseen on the show bust up almost instantly. The groom was unmasked as a former girlfriend abuser who wasn't nearly as rich as he was cracked up to be, and the hapless bride lost her day-job at a Los Angeles hospital and ended up posing nude for Playboy.

CBS appears to have hit rock bottom with its Survivor spin-off, Big Brother, now in its third week. In this show, a British version of which was launched on Friday, people are locked in a house and filmed round the clock. As they figure out who to throw out of the house next, you can see them eat, argue, go to the loo - and more. Anything the show is too shy to carry you can watch on the internet.

But so tacky is Big Brother, audiences are switching off in droves. It is also so boring it had one critic, Tim Goodman, of the San Francisco Examiner, begging the participants - with tongue firmly in cheek - to "start shagging". "Maybe CBS can kill everyone on Big Brother and have their body parts wash up on the Survivor island to end that food shortage," he added. "Just an idea."

Does this suggest that decent writers and decent scripts might yet come back into fashion? Or are Hollywood's wordsmiths indulging in a Survivor game of their own?

Ms Piper, who, for now, has settled for regular but less lucrative work on the Rugrats cartoon series, said: "This last year has been very nasty, very cut-throat. A girl I know who never opens her mouth in script meetings has just landed a staff job even though she's not a good writer. It helps that she's blonde, 27, and well-stacked on top. Not that I resent her. I resent the process."