You Can’t Make a Living: Digital Media, the End of TV’s Golden Age, and the Death Scene of the American Playwright




Photo by Benjamin Thompson

A FEW WEEKS AGO, I went to a hotel in West Hollywood for a dinner in honor of playwrights working in film and TV. The event was hosted by the screenwriting organization The Black List, along with New Girl creator and showrunner Liz Meriwether, who started out (not long ago; she’s still under 35) as a playwright. About 30 writers were there, nearly all of whom, like Liz, and including me, spent time in New York pursuing playwriting before emigrating to Los Angeles to write for TV. Writers in attendance included Sarah Treem, creator of Showtime’s new drama The Affair, Nick Jones, a story editor on Orange is the New Black, and Sheila Callaghan, who writes for Shameless. Identifying these writers by the TV shows they work for is a shift for me; I’ve known each of them for years, both personally and through their work, and I’m familiar first and foremost with their own distinctive and original voices as playwrights. After a round of cocktails, The Black List founder Franklin Leonard asked us to find seats at the table, instructing us to “sit next to someone you’ve never met.” This made everyone laugh, because for the most part, we all knew each other already. The world of professional theater, insofar as such a world still exists, is quite small.

For decades now, the theater world has wrung its hands at the loss of talented playwrights to the more lucrative field of screenwriting. Writing for theater, so the trope goes, pays more modestly than screenwriting, but offers something that Hollywood cannot: artistic freedom, the power of ultimate authority over the work, and perhaps even some inherent aesthetic virtue that film and television, as screen-based and/or advertising-driven media, lack. During the 2007 Writers Guild strike, The New York Times theater critic Charles Isherwood penned a missive to all the striking television writers out in Los Angeles, “that sick-souled city of grimy palms and gridlock,” encouraging them to “return to the fold”:

Look on the [WGA] strike not as a painful crimp in your earnings potential but as a heaven-sent opportunity to return to your first love, the theater, where the writer is still king, albeit of a relatively dinky kingdom. Fate has given you another shot at artistic redemption. Don’t let it slip away.

In this gloss on the material and creative conditions of writers’ lives, Isherwood sets up the classic moral quandary he seems to believe writers face: go west, sell out, make money, but sacrifice your artistic soul — or come back to New York, write plays, and be redeemed, while putting up with a “crimp” in your bank account. The assumption underlying his lament is that dramatic writers, in deciding where to focus their energy, have a real choice to make — a selection between two viable professions, one that just happens to pay less than the other. However, leaving the artistic questions aside for the moment, this characterization of writers’ economic options is in fact deeply misleading. The truth is, you can’t make any kind of living as a playwright. The writers whom Isherwood cajoles to come back and devote themselves full-time to theater have in reality no such opportunity.

In his 2009 study Outrageous Fortune: The Life and Times of the New American Play, Todd London, artistic director of the playwrights’ advocacy organization New Dramatists, reaches a bleak conclusion: “Financially speaking, there is no way to view playwriting as anything other than a profession without an economic base.” Data collected in London’s book, culled from the top tier of American playwrights (those who “have gone to leading schools, gained entrance to competitive playwright centers, had productions on major stages, and won prestigious awards”), and who on average are between 35 and 44 years old, shows that only 15 percent of playwrights’ incomes actually come from writing plays. So, if a playwright makes $30,000 a year, that means their actual playwriting (including commissions, productions, and publications) garnered them just $4,500. And this level of income is typical for the writers surveyed: as London reports, “The average playwright earns between $25,000 and $39,000 annually, with approximately 62% earning under $40,000 and nearly a third making less than $25,000.” In addition to the meager 15 percent that comes directly from their plays, writers earn 35 percent of their incomes through “playwriting-related activities,” which usually means either teaching or, in many cases, screenwriting. The rest, just over half of professional playwrights’ earnings, is pieced together from sources unrelated to playwriting at all. And remember, these are the champions, the winners — the people who are, by some definition, succeeding.

I can offer my own experience as an example: after receiving my MFA in Playwriting from the Yale School of Drama in 2006, I moved to New York. Over the next six years, while living in Brooklyn, I wrote five plays, had at least eight productions, received a $7,500 grant from the New York Foundation for the Arts, and participated in a residency program at the Public Theater. I had the credentials of a professional, but my actual income came from a combination of odd jobs: nannying, teaching yoga, transcribing out-of-print books. None of these part-time gigs offered health insurance. The grand total I was paid for my work as a playwright over the entirety of those six years, including the government grant, was approximately $13,000. The amount I had paid to go to Yale and get my master’s degree in this supposed profession was over four times that. At a certain point, you have to ask whether the term “profession” even makes sense anymore. A profession without an economic base? I think we call that a hobby. Indeed, this is how the great theater director Mike Nichols referred to it. In a tribute to Nichols, who died in November, playwright (and television writer) Jon Robin Baitz recounts a time when he was complaining to Nichols about the impossibility of making a living in the theater. Nichols, comparing playwriting to owning racehorses, said to him, “Robbie, don’t you see: your expensive hobby is telling the truth.” Playwriting, like gambling, is an expensive hobby — something that every one of the writers gathered at that West Hollywood dinner knows well.

So contrary to the old familiar picture painted by Isherwood in the Times, in 21st-century America, playwriting cannot be thought of in earnest as a rival of screenwriting. In reality, it is more like a barnacle clinging to it. If not for the fact that so many writers can and do earn an actual living in Hollywood, and thereby subsidize their occasional foray into the theater, many of the plays written since, oh, the advent of the talkies, let’s say, would never have existed. The American Theater is in fact quite lucky that the entertainment industry has, for a century, provided a means of support for so many of its most promising dramatic writers.

Indeed, the economic ruin of the playwriting profession is a 20th-century story, not a 21st-century one. It began in the 1920s, or thereabouts, with the rise of commercial motion pictures, and was more or less complete by the 1980s, with the introduction of cable TVs and VCRs. As technology progressed, new and cheaper forms of dramatic media became available, audience habits and preferences changed, and the formerly profitable, culturally dominant live theater industry could no longer sustain itself. It made poor economic sense for the proprietors of theater buildings to continue mounting expensive live productions when they could show movies for much less, and attract bigger audiences to boot. So, many theaters that had once been homes for plays turned into movie houses instead. In 1929, influential Russian theater director Vsevolod Meyerhold remarked that “the cinema is attracting far greater audiences than any other type of theatre.” And by 1987, critic Robert Brustein was writing a book called Who Needs Theatre, in which he lamented, “The solid nuclear core of intelligent theatregoers […] seems to have surrendered to the stronger pulls of movies and television […] With the new technology [of TV and VCRs] […] why leave the house at all except to go to the office?” Gone are the days that my late great-aunt Ruth, who grew up in 1930s and ’40s New York, must have remembered fondly when she would ask me, “Alena! When am I gonna see you on Broadway?” Oh, Aunt Ruth! New plays don’t really get produced on Broadway anymore. Between 1920 and 1940, there were an average of 130 new plays (that is, non-musicals and non-revivals) opening on Broadway per year. Between 1980 and 2000, that number had fallen to 14. And it keeps dropping. It was capitalism, plain and simple, that made the pursuit of playwriting into a pipe dream. When the high, fixed costs of labor, rent, and marketing involved in the production of plays (combined with the difficulty of reproducing and distributing), meant that live drama started to come at a premium, audiences were no longer willing to pay for it. This summer, the average cost of a ticket to a Broadway show topped $100; the best seats for the most in-demand shows (like Book of Mormon, created by the esteemed playwrights who brought us South Park) cost as much as $500. Some people (mostly old, rich, white ones, according to recent audience demographic reports) still go see plays, but for the vast majority of Americans, live theater is an oddity, a relic.

And lately, on top of these blunt economics, the artistic side of the comparison between writing for theater and writing for television has come to seem outdated, too. It has been said over and over again in recent years that we are living through a golden age of television. In no way would I disparage the infinitely profound and wonderful possibilities that exist when one is writing for the stage, but it does seem safe to say that television as a dramatic medium has really come into its own. The past decade has brought us a cornucopia of original, complex, and fundamentally writer-driven shows. In the age of The Wire, Mad Men, Breaking Bad, and 30 Rock, the television showrunner has achieved auteur status and vast cultural influence. Some of the most prominent showrunners, of course, are playwrights. And I’m not just talking about Aaron Sorkin. Younger writers like Meriwether, Treem, and Beau Willimon (House of Cards), who not long ago were shepherding their plays through small off-Broadway productions, now command multi-million dollar budgets for TV shows they create, write, and run themselves, working with immensely talented actors, and engaging with a responsive, demanding audience. Even The New York Times has backed down from its anti-television stance. In 2010, critic Jason Zinoman admitted that “writers who compose only for the stage have become all but obsolete,” and ventured to suggest that writing for “acclaimed shows like Mad Men, In Treatment, or The Wire” should not be categorically renounced as “selling out.” Zinoman interviews a number of playwrights who also work in television — or, more realistically speaking, television writers who indulge in writing plays. All attest to the ways in which their experiences in TV have been creatively empowering. “TV makes you a better listener,” says Stephen Belber (Law and Order: SVU). “You learn to use subtext more,” testifies Adam Rapp (In Treatment). Between the impossibility of earning a living in the theater, and the increasing cultural admiration for challenging, writer-driven television, it’s hard for anyone to argue convincingly — or ethically — that a writer should really stick to plays.

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Yet now, in a stroke of irony, right in the midst of this golden age, writing for television as a means of making a living is under a new kind of threat. It is possible that in the near future, screenwriting as a profession could be demonetized, just as happened to playwriting over the course of the 20th century. How would this occur? The same way it did before: through developments in technology that lead to radical changes in production and distribution models, along with major shifts in audience expectation and behavior. This is what happens to “old media,” after all — new media rise up and displace them. We are clearly in the midst of such a conflict right now, as the internet has seized control of the global cultural economy, upending established industries and eroding formerly paramount institutions from book publishers to the music industry to print newspapers and magazines to now, finally, even the mighty television networks. Rough times lie ahead for the television industry, and these challenges will inevitably impact its writers.

At first glance, the rise of the internet seems to only augment TV’s new golden age, multiplying our current abundance of excellent, aesthetically daring scripted programming. With companies like Netflix, Amazon, and Hulu transforming themselves into producers of, and platforms for, original programming, there are suddenly many new outlets for scripted narrative. Also, these new-media producers come armed with a wealth of data about the viewers they hope to attract, and can slice that audience into targeted niches, allowing for riskier types of shows to be developed, as these shows are not expected to draw the broadest possible spectrum of viewers. In the past, there were very few places to sell an original drama or comedy series, especially one that involved any kind of dangerous or unusual material. Now that pay and basic cable are trying to compete with internet platforms and each other, there has been an explosion. In a way, the combination of TV and the internet now seem to offer to writers what Broadway and off-Broadway once did: plenty of opportunity, a variety of venues for new work, diverse and enthusiastic audiences, and a wide swath of competitive producers willing to take risks on high-quality productions. Strangely, the internet has even reinvented the theatrical, community-oriented aspect of TV viewing: with social media, people gather together in real time for events like awards shows, football games, series finales, or last week’s live production of Peter Pan on NBC, cheering, jeering, and interacting much like a Broadway audience of yore (or, perhaps more accurately, like a bunch of Renaissance drunks at Shakespeare’s Globe). With this surge in the number of scripted shows being produced, and with demanding audiences who can respond in real time to the stories they are watching, it’s a great time to be a working television (slash internet) writer. However, as with any gold rush, the good times can easily come to an end.

What happened to theater is now happening to television. As the audience fragments into smaller and smaller groups, and as those groups consume media across a wider and more disparate array of time-shifting, on-demand platforms, traditional ad-supported network business models fall apart. The phrase “I don’t even own a TV” is heard more and more, especially as the viewers’ age gets younger. It’s not that young people are spending less time staring at screens these days, of course — it’s that we’re all making less of a distinction between the different types of screens. According to a recent Yahoo! poll, less than 20 percent of 18- to 34-year-olds could identify who made their favorite shows or where they happened to watch them. Under these new conditions, it becomes increasingly difficult for networks to hold onto their advertisers. The audience is no longer captive. Why should advertisers underwrite the cost of weekly scripted shows when fewer and fewer people will show up to watch them, particularly at the appointed hour? It is now normal for a prime-time network sitcom to get a Nielson score of just 1 or 2, representing around two million viewers. In the 1990s, a show with that rating would have been canceled. But now, with such a fragmented audience, different metrics have to be considered. A network might argue that a show’s “tweetability” is just as crucial as the size of its audience — but that notion, to many advertisers, can be dismissed as optimistic spin. So the advertising-driven model of traditional network TV is crumbling, and meanwhile, the subscription-based model of premium cable is under new kinds of pressures as well.

Some of the threats to pay cable come from these same grassroots changes in audience behavior and expectation. Internet-age audiences expect to be able to watch whatever they want, whenever they want it, on whatever device they have handy. This “à la carte” style of viewership means that fewer and fewer people — again, especially younger ones — are willing to pay for an old-school cable subscription where the channels that play the shows you watch are bundled together with a whole bunch of channels and shows you would never watch. Why should I pay for sports games when all I want to watch is Project Runway? The problem is, cable bundling is the system that until now has provided the economic subsidies for many expensive, high-quality, but ultimately niche-oriented shows. Unbundling AMC and HBO from ESPN and QVC – indeed, unbundling Game of Thrones from Olive Kitteridge – and allowing audiences to pick and choose in a kind of pay-as-you-go system would inevitably decrease the number and variety of options available. In a strictly à la carte system, the fees charged to consumers for watching a show would have to exceed the budget for production, marketing and distribution of the show itself in every case, without exception, on a show-by-show basis. Every show on television, or the internet, no matter how adventurous or expensive, would be subject to this cutthroat, all-or-nothing popularity contest. Risks would therefore become much harder to take. TV shows could become like Kickstarter projects — or independent theater productions — begging for the capital necessary to exist. Welcome to what we in the theater world might call “downtown” television. Which underfunded web series do you want to watch tonight?

And this is assuming that anyone is willing to pay for the shows they watch at all. As internet pioneer turned techo-skeptic Jaron Lanier starkly puts it in his 2010 screed You Are Not a Gadget, “Once file sharing shrinks Hollywood as it is now shrinking the music companies, the option of selling a script for enough money to make a living will be gone.” Lanier’s warning may seem hyperbolic, but unrestricted file sharing is surely what undermined the music industry, and it’s what’s hurting the world of journalism, too. In a sense, the internet caused the unbundling of both the music album and the print newspaper — and in doing so, severely damaged both industries. The trouble comes down to simple economics of supply and demand in the digital age. When infinite copies of a work of art can be made and distributed globally in an instant, supply is limitless, and the value of an individual copy gets pushed down to zero. But of course, the original cost of creating a work of art in the first place, for the creator, does not change a bit. Writers still need to eat, pay rent, and feed their families. They just can’t necessarily rely on profits from their actual work to compensate them for that endeavor. This is how a profession gets demonetized. This is how a job — a living — gets reduced to a hobby.

The new threats to television’s economics come from the top down as well. It’s not just the fragmented, unruly audience causing the disruption. It’s the consolidation of near-monopolistic powers by the mega-corporations that control the internet itself. In the old days, there were imbalances of power, too, of course: the owners of the record companies were more powerful than the artists; the owners of the publishing companies were more powerful than the novelists; and the owners of the movie studios were more powerful than the screenwriters. But now, all these different types of media, formerly distributed via recognizably distinct systems (record stores, bookstores, movie theaters — not to mention newspapers, radio stations, post offices, and TV networks), have begun to converge into just one: the internet. And the internet is not a neutral space. The platform where nearly all of culture now takes place is, in fact, owned and controlled by a handful of incredibly powerful, borderline-monopolistic corporations. And these are the companies, like Amazon, now getting into “the scripted game.” We’ve already seen the types of problems that can arise under this new arrangement — for example, in the recent conflict between Amazon and the publishing company Hachette. In an era where Amazon is responsible for 65 percent of all online book sales, and 41 percent of book sales, period, their thuggish negotiation tactics can be potentially calamitous for a publishing company, and devastating for individual writers. If this is how Amazon treats the writers of books, how well can we expect them, as producers or distributors, to treat the writers of TV shows? Similar questions can be asked about any of the powerful new platform owners — in particular, the telecom companies that actually control the physical cables and routers through which all our media now travels. The fight for net neutrality is the fight to stop the internet from becoming a place where giant telecom companies are able to dictate terms to every creator who wishes to distribute content through their pipes. And screenwriters’ livelihoods depend on it.

The WGA has already begun to warn its members about the effects of this top-down squeezing. Without net neutrality, says Writers Guild President Chris Keyser in a recent email to all members of the screenwriters’ union,

our greatest opportunity to reintroduce competition for what we create and sell will be reduced or eliminated. A few corporations will control online content, and depending on their priorities and who pays them the most, will decide what websites and services get priority access to consumers. That is not good for free speech, and it is bad for the economic future of writers.

Even now, with net neutrality still in place, media consolidation is affecting writers’ ability to sell their work for a competitive price. Thirty years ago, according to Keyser, there were 20 to 30 companies competing to hire writers and create content. Today, “that number has dropped to seven that control 95% of our business. In practice, four of them control negotiations with writers and with the guilds.” This tightening, he says, “is felt by writers in their pocket books every day, even in a ‘golden age’ of television.” Writers have been able to make a living in TV and film because their union has been strong enough to negotiate terms like the minimum weekly salary for a staff writer on a network sitcom or required compensation for a polish on a screenplay. Today, you can count the WGA’s bargaining partners on one hand, and these partners are giant, global corporations that control the physical apparatus of the internet itself. If net neutrality goes out the window, and if audiences demand super-cheap, à la carte viewing, will we still be strong enough to fight?

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But maybe writers don’t need — or, indeed, deserve — to be paid for our work. Consider the view of Clay Shirky, a prominent technobooster, TED-talker, and author of books like Cognitive Surplus: Creativity and Generosity in a Connected Age. Shirky likes to say that “the internet runs on love.” According to his take, the most glorious potential of the internet lies precisely in its capacity to allow creative people everywhere to contribute the fruits of their labor, without asking permission, and without asking to be paid. Whether you’re posting a photo on Instagram or a video on YouTube, you’re sending your work out to a potentially global audience, and, so the story goes, participating in the great collective orgy of creativity that is networked humanity. In Shirky’s view, the internet is an amateur paradise: a place where all people can contribute to culture, not just those who passed through one elitist gatekeeper or another. Shirky does not dwell on the profits made by the giant companies who own the platforms where we all upload our creations. He does admit, “It can seem unfair for amateurs to be contributing their work for free to people who are making money from aggregating and sharing that work.” But, he breezes on, “The people sharing […] don’t expect to be paid.” Why not? Because they’re amateurs. Because they’re only doing it for love. But if all of culture happens on the internet, and if no one on the internet can get paid for cultural work, then we’re all amateurs. There will be no professionals. There will be no jobs. All of culture will need to be produced by people who support themselves in other ways, and indulge in things like journalism, or TV-making, as an “expensive hobby.”

Well, that sounds familiar to me, and I’ll bet it does to everyone else who calls him or herself a playwright. We don’t write plays for the money — because there is no money anymore. We do it for something else, which I guess we can call love. But, frequently, it doesn’t feel like love. It feels like pain. Working in a demonetized profession is a situation fraught with despair. Everyone in the 21st-century theater community is suffering, because there simply aren’t enough resources to go around. The artists suffer. The work suffers. And people quit. Not because they want to, not because they’ve made their best work or have run out of inspiration, but because they have to. We grow up. You can’t feed your family on love.

Now here’s a thing I found out online: Clay Shirky, Silicon Valley technobooster and proponent of “running on love,” actually used to be a theater person. According to Wikipedia, not only did he found his own short-lived theater company in the 1990s, he also worked as a lighting designer for two of our country’s most admired and tenacious experimental theater groups, Elevator Repair Service and the Wooster Group. Here’s Shirky, in an interview with Wired, reminiscing about his theater days:

Wired: You used to be in theater. What, if anything, do you miss about it?

Shirky: You know, what I miss weirdly is rehearsal. You basically have the same problem from the first day of rehearsal to opening night. And you just get in a room with people who are the best people you could figure out to take on that problem, and you just hammer at it over and over again. I worked for five years at the Wooster Group, which would rehearse a show for a year. We would have four hours a day of rehearsal for months on end, and you just see this process of building up good stuff and then prying it away. There’s something about constantly getting with the same group of people and hammering on the same ideas…

In this moving response of Shirky’s, he shows us exactly why great theater, like any great cultural work, is so expensive. A dramatic production of the highest quality, whether for theater, film, TV, or the internet, will only come at a substantial cost. When the Wooster Group rehearses a show for a year, the results can be extraordinary — but not unless the people making that work have been able to afford to do it full-time, in a room together, while covering the basic costs of life in an expensive city. A group of adults — professionals — need to be paid for their time and labor, or else the work will be shoddy, even nonexistent. Great drama, in any medium, hammers away at the problem of what it means to be human and in relationship with other humans. But no matter the form, the bottom line is, somebody has to pay for it.

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*Special thanks to Lucie Elven for her thoughts on this subject.

Alena Smith was one of Variety’s 10 TV Writers To Watch in 2014.



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