Academic journal article Journal of Broadcasting & Electronic Media

Audience Segmentation and Age Stratification among Television Writers

Academic journal article Journal of Broadcasting & Electronic Media

Audience Segmentation and Age Stratification among Television Writers

Article excerpt

Nineteen year-old Riley Weston was a Hollywood phenomenon. In the summer of 1998, she had a six-figure development deal to write for Disney's Touchstone Television, and Entertainment Weekly had just named her one of the 100 most creative people in the industry. Weston's claim to fame was that as a teenager she was both writing for and portraying a high school senior in an episode of the WB's youth-oriented series, Felicity. "In many ways I am Felicity," Weston told Entertainment Weekly, "so I hope to portray this generation in a realistic light" (Pope, 1998).

The idea that one has to be young in order to write scripts that appeal to a youthful audience is widespread in Hollywood, a lesson that Ms. Weston learned all too well just a few months later, in the fall of 1998. Shortly before Entertainment Tonight was to do a feature on her, an investigative reporter broke the news that Ms. Weston was in fact 32 years old. Weston was embarrassed but unapologetic. She noted that those seeking work as actors and actresses routinely misrepresent their ages and said that "in a business fraught with age bias, I did what I thought I had to do to succeed." Executives at Imagine Television, the production company that hired Weston for Felicity, were less sympathetic. The company's statement read: "The recent accusations concerning Riley's background are a complete surprise to all of us. If proven to be true, we will be disappointed and shocked" (Pope, 1998). The story was picked up by the major wire services, prominently featured in the entertainment press and television news magazines, and in the end Touchstone decided not to pick up the option on Ms. Weston's contract.

Coincidentally, shortly after the Riley Weston story broke, the Writers Guild of America issued the 1998 Hollywood Writers' Report (Bielby & Bielby, 1998), which documented disparities by gender, minority status, and age in the career trajectories of television and film writers. With the Weston story as backdrop, media coverage of the WGA report focused almost exclusively on the findings about older writers. Receiving most media attention were statistics showing that: (1) very few writers over 40 are employed on many popular prime-time television series; (2) the unemployment rate for writers over 30 had increased since the early 1980s; (3) the unemployment rate for writers 30 and younger declined over the same period; and (4) the growth in earnings among younger writers greatly outpaced earnings growth among older writers.

The media attention peaked when 60 Minutes used the Riley Weston story and the WGA report to frame a segment on age bias against television writers. In that segment, experienced television writers, such as M*A*S*H executive producer Larry Gelbart, pointed to the Riley Weston story as an extreme example of the age bias that, in their view, had become commonplace in the industry. Around the same time, the entertainment writer for The New York Times wrote about the plight of older writers by proclaiming, "in Hollywood, a new kind of blacklist targets older writers" (Weinraub, 1998). Given the reality of Hollywood blacklists a half century ago, this imagery, which resonates so strongly with many older writers, is indeed provocative. But is it in fact the case that the television writers over 40 are less valued in the marketplace today compared to ten or fifteen years ago? And if so, what accounts for this trend? Can it be explained by age differences in the skills and qualifications of writers and shifts in the qualities being sought by those who hire television writers? Is there evidence of age bias against older television writers?

In this research, we analyze quantitative panel data on the careers of both television and film writers to assess whether barriers to career success for older writers have increased in the television sector in recent years. Based on an analysis of shifts in programming strategies, we develop hypotheses about the effects of age, years of experience, and prior career success on the earnings of television writers compared to film writers during the period from 1982 to 1997. …

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