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COVER STORY | First Person

No Experience Wanted

A writer of a certain age finds awards and credits mean little to youth-obsessed executives.

June 10, 2001|BOB SHAYNE | 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

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.

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."

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.

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