What I wrote today in the Albany Times-Union.
A writers’ room of N.Y.’s own
By Lisa Takeuchi Cullen, Commentary
Published 5:29 pm, Tuesday, June 10, 2014
Right around now, I should be starting my job as a staff writer on a new TV series. That is, if I had a job.
Staffing, as it’s called, is the bread and butter of TV writers, and June is when shows set to debut in the fall open their rooms. Working on staff in a writers’ room means steady paychecks and interesting work. If the show’s a hit, your job might last longer than a season—plus you enjoy the cachet and thrill of contributing to a story consumed by millions.
Or so I hear.
I am a TV writer who has never staffed. The reason: staffing jobs are in L.A. And I am not.
Instead I feed my family writing TV pilots, which is cool when you sell them, and even cooler when they’re produced, as my drama pilot was by CBS last spring. But the following fall, when I failed to sell a single pitch to network, I would have given a nonessential organ for regular work.
The dearth of TV writer jobs in New York might seem puzzling, considering the boom in TV shoots. A record 15 out of 87 network pilots used New York as its set this spring, according to Variety. Non-network shows are swarming here too. Marvel Entertainment committed to shooting 60 episodes of its four Netflix superhero series in New York City.
The boom is fueled by a 30 percent tax credit introduced in 2004. The Empire State Film Production Credit has resulted in a job surge among many skilled workers in New York, from cameramen to actors, location scouts to production assistants, gaffers to assistant directors.
But not writers. Out of the $420 million tax break, exactly none is allocated to us.
So even as more shows shoot here, they don’t staff here. Only a handful of network TV dramas, including CBS’s “Blue Bloods” and NBC’s “Law & Order: SVU,” have New York writers’ rooms. Late-night shows including “Saturday Night Live” and “The Daily Show” provide some coveted comedy jobs; daytime dramas, or soaps, no longer do. The Writers Guild of America East (of which I am a member) estimates that about 8 percent of TV writers work in New York.
Studios and networks remain resistant to staffing in New York. The argument I hear most frequently from executives, producers and agents is the lack of talent.
By “talent,” they mean not just the ability to write, but to write for TV. To work in a room, break a story, handle a network note. These are learned skills, and nothing a driven writer without TV experience can’t acquire. The problem is that for those of us unwilling or unable to move out West, those opportunities to learn are almost nonexistent.
That absence of opportunity hits women and minorities hardest. Most of us lack the social connections and educational pedigree to launch a career in TV writing, a field in which those advantages have historically meant the difference between open and shut doors. The annual Hollywood diversity report from the Bunche Center at UCLA remains a reliably depressing — if no longer shocking — read.
Hollywood has long failed to ease its diversity problem. It’s New York’s turn. A bill currently before the State Senate and Assembly in Albany seeks to to carve out $3.5 million of the current $420 million production tax credit as an incentive to hire women and minority TV writers. It doesn’t sound like much, and in fact it isn’t. But it may spur more studios to at least consider locating its writers’ room here, and to hire a more diverse staff—writers who look and sound like New York, and like America.
Lisa Takeuchi Cullen is a TV writer, author, and a former staff writer for Time magazine.