Monday, August 25, 2008

"Agism, Or Something Else?"

An article in the Business Section of the L.A. Times reported that some television writers had won a settlement from the ICM talent agency, concerning a lawsuit they had brought, charging that they’d been discriminated against on the basis of age.

I thought maybe I had something to say about that. Then, I decided not to bother, and I threw the newspaper in the trash. Then, I changed my mind, and I went outside to retrieve it. But I couldn’t find it. Okay, so that’s a message, I thought. I don’t need to write about this.

Then, I changed my mind again, and I went across the street to a convenience store and bought another copy of the newspaper, so I could re-read the article. Apparently, I needed to write about it after all.

And why not? I’m one of those guys – too old; no job. This wasn’t, “Grape Pickers Denied Bathroom Breaks.” They were writing about me.

So wherefrom my ambivalence towards weighing in? Well, first, it’s not my favorite thing to identify with a group of people who are doing badly.

“Yes, I’m one of those people nobody wants to hire.” It’s a bit of a “downer” as an icebreaker at parties.

But there was something pushing me the other way. As a stickler for precision – in language and in argument – I wasn’t certain the plaintiffs in this case were promoting a legitimate legal grievance. At the same time, I felt zero enthusiasm for bolstering the side that was keeping me at home.

The first step in confronting a problem is to define clearly what it is. “Clearly defining” requires a precision of language. That’s what I think. I could be wrong here, or, if not wrong, unproductively nitpicky. Maybe all you need to define this problem are eyes. You look at the writing staffs and nobody’s old. Hello, lawsuit.

The situation is painfully real. But I’m not persuaded that it’s against the law.

When you’re dealing in analogies, you have to be extremely careful. Just because two words end with ism, doesn’t automatically make them the same.

Racism is grounded in the belief by one race that another race is inferior, the consequences being that the “superior” race has no problem treating the “inferior” race abominably. “We’re better; they’re property.”

Agism involves discrimination against a group of people who are over a certain age.

In both cases, there’s provable discrimination. Does that mean the two situations are equivalent? The writers who’ve brought the twenty-three age discrimination lawsuits believe they are. And they’ve already gotten an agency settlement to back them up.

You can’t discriminate against race – You can’t discriminate against age. It’s the same thing. If the suing writers are correct. (The settlement did not require ICM to admit to any wrongdoing, so the definitive answer is still up for grabs.)

But are the two situations – racism and agism – really the same? Why are agencies and the studios and networks discriminating against older writers? Do they despise them? Are older writers perceived as being genetically inferior? That can’t be true. Their genes haven’t altered from when they were young writers, and fully employed.

What’s the reason older writers are discriminated against? Is it “Wrinkle Envy”? What?

Older writers are not hired because they are perceived as being unable to provide material that will deliver the younger audience advertisers require the networks to attract. Agencies are dropping them, because they can’t get them any work. In other words – an argument can be made – and probably has been – that that this has nothing to do with discrimination at all. It’s simply a matter of business.

It’s an argument that cannot be easily dismissed. Can you imagine a similar lawsuit being brought against Major League Baseball by a group of fifty year-old ballplayers?

“They won’t let us play. It’s agism.”

That’s not agism. They’re old.

“Writing isn’t sports, Earl.”

That’s true. You see that? I made an analogy mistake myself. An argument can be made – and I’ll make it right here – that I’m a better writer than I was when I was younger. I see the story problems sooner and can make adjustments more quickly. Though I’m not currently writing a script, I watch movies and I reflexively know how, with some minor adjustments, the storylines could have been made stronger, more consistent with the writer’s intentions.

But there’s more to writing than story structure, though, to me, that’s still the primary element, and, by the way, the element least influenced by changing times. A well-told story is a well-told story, whether it’s around a campfire in a cave or on “Must See” TV.

It must be acknowledged, however, that something in the marrow of half-hour comedy (my only area of expertise) has fundamentally changed. (It should also be acknowledged that network comedies today are less popular than they’ve ever been in the entire history of television.)

The essence of situation comedies – the structural rhythm, the sensibility of the content, the relationships and the language, the transition, primarily, from a four-camera shooting style to single camera – it’s significantly different. At least, some of that difference is the product of a subtle and, sometimes, not so subtle, generational…mutation.

In the article about the agism lawsuit, a writer named Larry Mintz was mentioned as one of the plaintiffs. Among his credits, it was reported, were Sanford and Son, The Nanny and Family Matters. These are estimable credits on successful sitcoms, but do those shows bear any resemblance to the half-hour comedies they’re making today? (This is no shot at Mr. Mintz. You can ask the same question using my credits.)

Can an older writer learn to write scripts consistent with contemporary tastes and standards? Some can, I imagine. I’m probably not be one of them. The structure’s not the problem – as I mentioned, a story’s a story – but the current sensibility, with its focus on the coarse, the blatantly sexual, the humiliating and the pain inducing…it’s not my natural terrain.

If any writer could deliver a writing sample that met the current standards for acceptable scriptwriting, the only difference being they were older, their rejection would be definitely attributable to agism. What else could it be? Perhaps the solution here could be script submissions without names on them. Maybe they could try that.

(I heard this “anonymity” system was instituted at an audition for a symphony orchestra. To combat gender discrimination, the musicians would try out playing behind a drawn curtain.)

An older writer can try to “write young”, though their efforts may prove imitative rather than generic. The option of older writers’ exploring their current experiences for the enjoyment of their contemporaries is unavailable, since advertisers aren’t interested in the older audience, making their stooges, the networks, unwilling to program for them.

This seems like a mistake, since the only audience still loyal to the network television brand is that very same older audience. Someday, perhaps, the business people will wise up and program for who’s watching – the older audience – instead of who they wish were watching – the otherwise engaged younger audience – in which case, the older writers are back in business.

On a smaller scale, a cable network targeted specifically to Boomers – who have more available cash to spend than anyone around – makes sense to me. And who better to provide that entertainment than the readily available age-appropriate writers? No forced mandates for older writer inclusion here. From a business standpoint, they’re simply the best people for the job.

It hurts to be sent home. And it’s obvious who’s being discriminated against. The question is the reason. Is it agism, or economics? If its agism, the answer’s in the courts. An economic explanation requires an economic solution.

The writer sitting at home might say it doesn’t make any difference. But if you’re looking for answers, rather than vindication, I think, maybe, it does.


Cezar said...

That was a powerful and interesting article, thank you.

Rusty James said...

I'm sure soon - especially in the States - Advertisers will play a much larger role in deciding what goes to air on existing Networks.

I'm not being facetious, condescending, or a conspiracy theorist here. I just imagine this is the root television is headed.

For example, my wife is a Fashion Designer here in Montreal with a respected woman's line - but in order for the company (like every other fashion label) to continue selling their flagship brands, they must take on Private Label contracts.

That means they sell at Zellers, Walmart, JC Penny et al, under different labels - and it's these company's Merchandisers who decide what clothing styles my wife's company makes (based on what sold well the previous season). They even travel to Europe to shop for samples/knock-offs together...

The Merchandisers telling the Designers what to design. Imagine?

All this to say, that if the Advertisers are paying for these television shows, it's only a matter of time before they follow the trend/reality of today's fashion industry.

But maybe that paradigm exists already in the form of Network Execs - the Salesman telling the Craftsman what he believes the customer wants, and what it is the customer ultimately gets.

C'est la vie.

To Earl's points, I believe it will just take someone to prove - through $ numbers - that a show targeted at seniors would make a lot of cash.

Imagine walking through the aisles of JC Penny and seeing a display of 'Annabelle' from 'THIS OLD HOUSE' wearing the same cardigan that's now on sale for $14.99 in aisle 3?

Now I'm being facetious.

Thanks Earl.

wcdixon said...

Fantastic post...

The Minstrel Boy said...

wow. it's strange when rather than quitting the business it appears that the business quits you.

i have admired your work for a long time. i'm one of those geeks who reads credits as they roll and liner notes on albums. . .

hope things roll your way eventually.

Diane Kristine Wild said...

Great post - a perspective I hadn't though about, and it's rare to read someone looking for answers rather than vindication or promoting an agenda. Sadly I think things will have to change a lot for networks to be content with the older audience, because it's exactly the younger viewer's rarity that makes them more valuable to advertisers.

buy viagra said...

I think this is common because all of us have had those situations, I've also sometimes leaved my house looking for answers, but I think those are desperate moments all people have had.m10m

Anonymous said...

Is there a television station that is completely devoted to seniors? (baby boomers)
I've been watching Bob Newhart and Mary Tyler-Moore reruns on, because I wanted a clean laugh.

Kate C said...

Anonymous: See RLTV. The site ( has a list of the channels it appears on in different areas.