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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

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.

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