Television is a business; the more savvy that you are about that business—about the structure and the way things work and the politics—then the better equipped you're going to be to get your stories told.Noreen Halpern, President of Scripted Programming for E1 Entertainment1
Critics have long described television as a writer's medium, and television writing is indeed unique in its use of collaboration to unwind stories and characters over extended periods of time. My previous research has focused on the impact of the Internet on how writers and producers create their stories for TV, and I continue to be interested in what many have called the "post-network" era of television in terms of how the roles and experiences of TV writers and producers have changed. What is it like to create stories for TV—whatever that is, exactly—in the unstable environment of the early twenty-first century? How can we understand the stories viewers are told? Are there old universal assumptions that have carried over into this era, or do we see a new set of universals emerging? Are there new opportunities, or new obstacles to writers' voices? This In Focus aims to address such questions.
Opportunities in a Changed Industry
A primary theme in any current examination of television is constant change, and the need for writers to be able to adapt. As Noreen Halpern, President of Scripted Programming for E1 Entertainment, notes above, one significant area for writers to be informed about is the business itself. E1 Entertainment is a prime example of today's changed industrial setting: the company—in terms of TV—operates as a boutique independent [End Page 128] studio even as it exists within a horizontally integrated business structure that includes divisions in film and music.
One of Halpern's jobs is to help writers navigate the terrain of this environment, protecting them creatively while also ensuring profit for them and for any companies involved. On the one hand, Ms. Halpern's division within E1 operates in a manner akin to NBC in the 1980s, when Brandon Tartikoff and Grant Tinker ushered in risky TV stories by shielding writers from network interference. On the other hand, her daily duties include striking deals with other independent studios, co-funding initiatives with other countries, finding ways to "cross-pollinate" within E1's larger bank of media holdings, and negotiating whether or not projects are best suited to broadcast networks, pay cable stations, or basic cable stations.
It is a challenge to protect creative vision in such a setting—though it must be noted that it has always been a challenge to protect the voice of writers in a profit-driven business such as US television. One avenue of respite has been cable, and Alisa Perren examines the experiences of writers in this domain in her essay "In Conversation: Creativity in the Contemporary Cable Industry." Perren reveals the considerable freedoms of both pay and basic cable, focusing predominantly on the smaller scope of cable. Her subjects also focus on how cable stations' need to be easily identified or branded as cable creates an imperative to distribute content different in kind from broadcast TV. Here, "different" is understood to mean riskier, more adult, and more complex fare.
HBO's promotional campaigns notwithstanding, cable is very much "TV," and broadcast TV has been very much influenced by cable. Mark Alton Brown who, with Dee LaDuke, has written for and produced broadcast hits such as Designing Women (CBS, 1986–1993) and Girlfriends (UPN, 2000–2008), echoes TV Studies scholars in observing that "[c]able has been fundamental to raising the quality of broadcast television."2 Editing this In Focus during a year in which ABC's Lost (2004–2010) left the airwaves amid as much media and fan frenzy as HBO's The Sopranos (1999–2007), it was certainly impossible to ignore the connected worlds of cable and broadcast. (The social and cultural relevance of Designing Women also belies the idea that quality TV scarcely existed before cable "drove broadcast to it.") Yet, as Alton Brown also notes, more creative freedom does not guarantee diversity of voice...