This is the second installment in a five-part series examining the transformation of television as the industry prepares to celebrate the Primetime Emmy Awards on Sept. 19.
There’s no aspect of scripted television development process that hasn’t fundamentally changed in the past decade. The rise of streaming has accelerated the industry’s focus from linear TV to an on-demand ecosystem. There are more platforms and opportunities for writers to get a show on the air, and all that expansion has put a strain on the talent pool needed to make television. That has forced innovations in the way shows are conceived, developed, ordered and produced.
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Of late, the spread of what have become known as writer “mini rooms” replacing the traditional (and much-maligned) pilot development process, is one of the more hotly debated developments.
In the an earlier era, when broadcast TV was the only game in town for big-budget scripted TV, shows went through a very predictable process: development to a pilot order to a series order. But now, thanks to the rise of powerful new streamers like Netflix, pilots are becoming the exception rather than the rule, just as series with episode orders of six, eight, 10 or 13 episodes per season compared to 22 or 24 in decades past.
More and more, major TV players are relying on straight-to-series orders to fill out their programming slates. While certainly not a new phenomenon, Netflix created a surge in such orders early in its original programming days, when it began greenlighting shows at an astonishing rate. This phenomenon was even parodied in shows like “South Park,” with the main characters calling up Netflix support only to be greeted by a company rep with the phrase “Netflix, you’re greenlit.” There is obviously a heavy risk in such an order, but it can also provide distinct advantages, like attracting big name creators and stars, with a guaranteed production start.
The practice has even started to permeate broadcast television, the last bastion of the traditional pilot process. Both the CW and ABC gave out a straight-to-series order this past pilot season, though ABC ultimately rescinded theirs – a multi-cam sitcom starring Alec Baldwin and Kelsey Grammer.
Another model gaining traction among TV executives: script-to-series orders and the opening of mini writers’ rooms. This typically consists of a show creator-showrunner and a smaller group of writers than would work in a full room writing multiple scripts for a show’s potential first season in order to give executives an idea of where the show may go and what kind of budget they can expect per episode.
This process has led to series orders for shows like “Our Kind of People” at Fox and “Kevin Can F**k Himself” at AMC, among others. The latter show was recently picked up for a second season, while the former is getting a fall launch behind network mainstay “The Resident” on Tuesday nights.
But not everyone in the industry is high on the idea of mini writers’ rooms. TV writers and agents have railed against the practice, which tends to offer less pay than a traditional writers’ room.
Robert King, the co-creator of shows like “The Good Wife” and “Evil,” tells Variety that he sees virtually no upside for a writer to take part in a mini writers’ room.
“The talents of writer-producers are being acquired for a song,” King says. “And it’s a system built on a lie — that writer-producers are not exercising their producing muscle when they build stories; they only exercise their producing muscle during filming. This is wrong. When writer-producers are not actually writing a script, but, in fact, are helping another build and write a story, they are acting as a producer.”
Coming This Week
Monday: Season — Why the construct of the fall season endures despite TV’s vast expansion.
Wednesday: Casting — What the shift to video auditions means for actors and talent discovery.
Thursday: Marketing — Why the business of ballyhoo has moved from attention-getting stunts to algorithims.
Friday: Metrics — What matters most these days as the on-demand world challenges audience measurement norms.
King goes on to say that another issue with mini writers’ rooms is that they offer creators and showrunners less creative clout.
“If showrunners have done most, if not all, of the heavy-lifting of story building in the ‘mini writers’ room, then there is less of a reason to keep them as the ‘voice’ of the show,” he says. “They become one more cog in the creative process.”
Multiple TV lit agents who spoke with Variety expressed similar sentiment, though they said the issue is a bit more complicated.
One agent said that there can be legitimate reasons to put together a mini writers’ room, such as the project in question has a very complex mythology and requires significant world building before a network or studio will commit serious money to it. Others said that, while junior writers will not earn the same money they would for a regular room, a mini writers’ room can offer them valuable experience and allow them to build relationships with showrunners. Most agreed, however, that more often than not, a mini writers’ room is simply a way for networks and studios to protect their bottom line at the expense of writers.
The WGA has also cautioned members to make sure that their pay and time expectations for mini writers’ rooms are carefully negotiated beforehand. In a blog post titled “Mini Rooms Are Writers’ Rooms. Period,” the guild wrote:
“Guild members should understand exactly what they’re signing up for on a mini-room project. Because there is often no production commitment at the start, experienced writers may find themselves working at WGA scale. For that reason, writers should try whenever possible to negotiate an over scale weekly rate for each week in the room. Your work has the same value in a mini room as it does in a regular writers’ room; your fee should accurately reflect your title and experience.”
Mini writers’ rooms are just one of the issues facing TV writers. As Variety previously reported, the logjam caused by all the projects purchased for development during the pandemic-related production shutdown has led to very challenging market conditions.
According to sources, multiple projects with A-list talent attached have failed to find homes in recent months, while others have only gotten off the ground due to the fact they were based on well-known IP.
This could soon spell the complete end of the traditional pilot process as we know it. After all, in a highly competitive environment, why would a legacy media company like Disney, ViacomCBS, or NBCUniversal shell out millions of dollars to staff and produce one episode of a show that may not go to air?
Says King: “If [networks and studios] can save money, and the WGA won’t fight for writers, the mini room is the future.”
Another tricky phenomenon: When parent company shift a broadcast or cable show to streaming. License fees, episodic orders and budgets are all different, and that makes renegotiating deals difficult. NBC’s “A.P. Bio” has moved to Peacock, while CBS has slid “SEAL Team” and “Evil” over to Paramount Plus, but others haven’t made the transition.
The continuing reorganization of the executive ranks at the largest established media giants has also created some hurdles. New regimes mean new priorities and that has a way of shifting demand for projects. Scribes and agents alike say it has become exhausting trying to keep tabs on the landscape. Just when they people think they have a handle on the environment, it changes again.
With pandemic conditions making work harder across the board and competition among networks running at a fever pitch, it remains to be seen when writers will be able to scope out a new normal in the fast-changing world of television.
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