By FRANK SWERTLOW
The fall slates of network shows announced earlier this month left advertisers pleased, TV critics unimpressed and network executives as bubbly and hopeful as always.
But any number of sitcom writers and producers were downright horrified as were most television writers over the age of 35.
For the first time since the 1989-90 season, there are more new dramas (22) than comedies (15) on the fall schedule. The dearth of new sitcoms means there will be less need for comedy writers, many of whom are the highest paid and most sought-after scribes in television.
While those who have longstanding development deals will still be in demand, hardest hit are the staff writers who bounce from show to show each season.
“I am lucky I found a staff job, but a lot of my friends are scrambling,” said one such writer. “This is the staffing season and people are calling each other looking for leads. I don’t think anybody will be sleeping in his car, yet. But there are going to be a lot of late payments on mortgages in the next few months.”
While sitcom writers may be worried, drama writers should be ebullient with the increase in one-hour shows. But it has to be the right kind of writer; 10 of these new dramas are teen- or youth-oriented, which often means bad news for veteran writers in their 40s and 50s. Among the new teen shows are Fox’s “Manchester Prep,” The WB’s “Roswell,” and NBC’s “Freaks and Geeks.”
“It is a big problem finding a seasoned writer who reflects the current appetite for youthful themes,” said Richard Weston, a partner in Major Clients Agency, which specializes in writers and directors. “There is a feeding frenzy out there for young writers who also have talent.”
One veteran prime-time writer acknowledged that she is getting edgy about the issue of ageism.
“They are looking for young writers,” she said. “The common wisdom is that the closer you are to having graduated high school, the closer you are in touch with that sensibility. Writers with credits that go back further are not being considered. Many of my friends are going into long-form (TV movies) and features because of this. Age isn’t as much a factor there.”
Where do producers, studios and networks find young writers to craft these teen-age dramas? Many come from features; others write scripts on spec and get noticed. Often, veteran writers go into partnership with young writers in an effort to show they are still hip.
Kate Juergens, senior vice president for development at The WB, said talent would always prevail over age.
“It really all depends on a writer’s point of view and not whether or not he is 50,” she said. “I would love to work with John Hughes (‘Home Alone’). He is not 18 to 34, but his whole voice is teen angst.”
That’s far from the prevailing view among many writers and directors, who maintain there is blatant ageism when it comes both to teen dramas and sitcoms that center on under 30 viewership.
But in Hollywood’s peculiar supply-and-demand mentality, what’s bad for one group is good for another. In this case, any actor or writer in his or her 20s is considered hot, even those with little experience.
“It is unbelievable,” said Scott Wilson, senior talent agent at Paul Kohner Inc. “Even the kids who didn’t get shows picked up for the fall are getting jobs on shows already on the air.”
Hollywood insiders say the fall-season slate doesn’t necessarily represent a permanent shift for the industry. Weston acknowledged a number of his clients are worried, but said there is no need to panic.
Comedy, he said, is where all the real profits in television are. “They will always be looking for half hours because of the ease of putting them into syndication,” he said.
Jamie Tarses, president of ABC Entertainment, agreed that sitcoms remain a very viable form of TV entertainment.
“The sitcom is not dead,” she said. “I think (what happened) was a function of this year’s development and nothing more complicated than that.”
The lull in comedy shows may simply reflect the fact that the industry has yet to discover much in the way of fresh comedic talent. That could be good news for struggling standup artists, whose comedy routines often become the basis of new shows.
“There is a cycle, and before (‘The Cosby Show’ on NBC) everybody said the sitcom was dead,” said NBC Entertainment President Garth Ancier. “What the sitcom has been needing for a long time is the new Bill Cosby or Tim Allen who just comes on the screen and dominates. It’s not about writing but personality. We are looking for the next generation to build a comedy around those voices.”
Even so, there’s little question that advertisers are demanding more teen dramas. The youthful-skewing WB has already sold all its advertising time for next season and enjoyed a 35 percent jump in ad rates, thanks to the success of hour-long shows like “Dawson’s Creek” and “Felicity.” Other networks are rushing to copy The WB’s formula.
In fact, talent agent Wilson said there might have been even more than 10 teen dramas on the fall schedule if not for the high school massacre in Littleton, Colo. The networks, and especially advertisers, were extremely cautious in choosing new shows that appealed to young and impressionable viewers.
“The advertisers said, ‘We are not buying into anything that has too much sex or violence,’ ” Wilson said. “They were afraid.”
After the fall schedules were announced last week, it was pretty much business as usual at The Improv, the legendary Hollywood comedy club where sitcom writers and standup comics try out new material. But there were signs of tension in the air.
“I don’t think it has sunk in yet,” said Budd Friedman, who runs the club. “It’s too soon to tell. The schedules have been released, but the shock will set in soon.”