I saw it coming. And I predicted it “on the record.”
I was invited to speak on a panel. Major Dad was on the air and doing commendably well. I was (comparatively) riding high. Hence, the invitation to participate on this panel.
The topic for discussion was “The Runaway Costs of Production In Television Programming.” I was the only “creative” of the five speakers on the dais. The other four participants were studio and network executives, two of whom were Les Moonves, then President of Warner Brothers Television, now head of CBS (and reputedly the highest paid executive in traditional media) and the legendary Freddy Silverman, programming head at one time or another of all three major television networks. (Only in show business do you find one of their most powerful executives “Freddy.”)
That was the panel – four executive heavyweights…
The executives delivered their introductory remarks before I did. And each of them said virtually precisely the same thing: The reason television production costs were skyrocketing was because the series’ creators (Read: writers) were demanding (and receiving) increasingly exorbitantly inflated contracts. To bring costs under control, the executives asserted, the writers’ overpriced “Development Deals” needed to be resisted and reversed.
Finally, it was my turn to speak. I began my entirely unprepared remarks with (more or less) the following opening sentence:
“I have been listening to the words of some of television’s most highly respected executives, and these men appear to be in complete agreement: The surest way, they say, to bring television production costs under control is by cutting my salary.”
I got a big laugh. Except from the executives. (Actually, they might been laughing too, but I was afraid to look.)
That’s not what I was prescient about. (I just enjoy telling that story.) I have been told, however, that with the exception of the heaviest “creative” hitters, lucrative “Development Deals” have virtually disappeared, and overall writers’ compensations have been substantially reduced. Proving that no matter how hilarious you are on a panel, the last laugh inevitably goes to the “suits.” I hate that. But it all evens out. The “suits” hate that they’re not creative.
I like to believe.
At some point, the discussion took a turn. And that’s when the non-biblical prophet E. Raymond Pomerantz parted the seas of ignorance, leading the skeptical and unknowing into the illuminated Promised Land.
I no longer remember the specifics, but I recall some bewailing about how competition from the recently-arrived cable outlets was severely cutting into the networks’ profits, the revised “paying field” requiring the networks to “tighten their belts.” Although there was no talk of the executives taking a cut in their salaries.
It was then I floated the idea that perhaps the major networks did not really matter so much anymore, going on to explain that to my daughter Anna, who at the time was less than ten, Nickelodeon was a major television network.
Aside from their financial worries, the executives on the panel and in the audience otherwise jocularly derided upstart cable TV, confident that the best talent would always go where the most money was being paid – network television.
It is indeed true that, to this day, the richest writer-producers ply their trades on network T.V. rather than on cable. Chuck Lorre (Two and a Half Men, The Big Bang Theory, etc., aired on CBS), for example, is considerably wealthier than Matt Weiner (Mad Men, playing on AMC.)
However – and keep in mind that when I made my prediction, The Sopranos would not air on HBO for a half-a-dozen or more years – my voice quivering as only a Teller of the Truth’s voice can quiver, I spoke of a time when the best talent… how exactly did I put it (more of less)? Oh yeah.
“The time will come –and it is not far off – when, given the alternative between a big payday but with network interference and a smaller payday but with creative control, writers committed passionately to their projects will invariably choose the latter.”
And lo, how the gathering assemblage mocked me, heaping scorn mightily upon my prophesy. (As, of course, all prophets are mocked and mightily scorned.)
But so was it prophesied. And so did it verily come to pass.
I am certain – though without specific evidence – that agents insist – and always have – that their clients at least try to sell their shows to the networks first, because, all things being equal, why not take the big money? The problem is, all things on television are not equal. The networks are, have been, and always will be hamstrung by commercial exigencies (meaning, in practical terms, highly organized and easily offended “pressure groups”, the ignoring of whom could seriously impoverish the networks’ “bottom lines.”)
As a result of the proffered “free hand”, more and more of the top tier “creatives” migrated to cable. Cable television, whose business is selling subscriptions rather than ads, promotes itself by offering precisely what the commercial networks cannot.
“Look what we’re showing you.”
And they don’t just mean nakedness. Although…there is definitely some of that. (I’m not certain, but there may have to be some of that.) What the cable networks were offering, attracting both a premium audience and the top creative talent at the same time, was television programming, infused – and you could recognize it in the content – by the unique and uncensored visions of its creators.
The best talent used to work for the networks. Because there wasn’t anyplace else to work. Now there are options, including Netflix and the Internet, and who knows what’s next? The writers may not make as much money working there, but they have a considerably better shot at realizing their creative intentions.
And for some people – arguably the most gifted in the creative community – that’s better.
I was unable to do it myself.