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This Sitcom Isn’t Funny

Bleak economy, digital revolution, youth culture add up to fewer jobs for older TV writers

ENTERTAINMENT tv radio

“The taint of ageism as I experienced it,” says Bob McCullough, “spreads throughout the industry, regardless of the age of those perpetrating it.” — Daryl Peveto / LUCEO

Bob McCullough worked his way up the treacherous Hollywood ladder in the ’70s, writing for hit series like Bionic Woman and B.J. and the Bear. Then he became supervising producer of the hugely popular ’80s soap Falcon Crest.

“The show was a hit, I was a hit, it was all good,” he says.

Until it wasn’t.

The intimations of professional mortality came gradually at first. But by the time the new century had arrived and he was 55, McCullough understood that his television career was over.

“It became apparent that the Aloha shirts and young persona were not fooling the young executives I was meeting with,” he says. “They said, ‘Gosh, you wrote my mother’s favorite TV show!’ My agent said, ‘There’s not much more we can do for you. Your time is done.’ He was absolutely ruthless and brutal.”

That kind of reaction even came from seasoned personnel closer to his own age, he says: “The taint of ageism as I experienced it spreads throughout the industry, regardless of the age of those perpetrating it.”

McCullough learned the Hollywood truth the hard way. Entertainment is generally biased toward executives who tend to be drawn to young writers whom they feel are more plugged into the cultural references of young audiences.

And in recent years, with the toll that the weak economy and the digital revolution are taking on the entertainment industry, younger writers also have the allure of being generally cheaper.

McCullough, now a 64-year-old with boyish charm reminiscent of Jeff Bridges, is one of 165 television writers who were plaintiffs in a long-running age-bias case against two dozen defendants that essentially run the television business. Among them are the big networks and production studios and seven major talent agencies.

A $70 million settlement

In January, the 10-year-old class action case was finally settled for $70 million. That may sound like a lot of money. But once the lawyers take their share and the rest is divided among the original plaintiffs, other older writers eligible to opt into the class, and a fund that will make loans and grants to writers, it’s safe to say that no one will get rich from this case.

Perhaps the most telling figure, as reported by the New York Times, is that, after insurance payments, no TV company or agency will have to shell out more than $1 million. And in Hollywood, that doesn’t count as real money. As one writer put it, “They may think that they’re settling a nuisance claim.”

The lead plaintiffs’ counsel in the case, Paul Sprenger, has agreed as part of the settlement not to discuss it with the media. Seth Pierce, a lawyer on the other side, said in a statement that the defendants would have prevailed at trial but settled to avoid “years of disruptive litigation.” So there has been no admission of wrongdoing.

Among those who believe that the studios, networks and agencies should have paid more is Anne Beatts, 63. Like McCullough, Beatts had a great career in television. She was a writer on Saturday Night Live in its legendary first five years. She created the sitcom Square Pegs, helping launch Sarah Jessica Parker’s career. But like McCullough, she started to notice as she matured that she was meeting with people of a different generation.

“No one was pointing at me saying, ‘You’re old. Get out,’ ” she says. But she had the feeling that she was talking to “people who were so young that they had no experience outside of a breakfast meeting.”

Beatts, who now teaches at Chapman University and the University of Southern California, says she really grasped where things were headed when she was working on a series for Nickelodeon.

The executives in charge wanted to add a 21-year-old writer to the team. Beatts already had a writing partner, the mother of a 12-year-old, who felt that she understood the patois of preadolescent girls. “She said to me, ‘They think we’re old ladies!’ ” Beatts remembers. “And I said, ‘Nonsense.’ But of course they did. That was the first time I kind of realized it."

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