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This Sitcom Isn’t Funny

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

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."

Youthquake victims

And once she did, she says, it became increasingly obvious. Beatts became the victim of “a youthquake that I had been part of creating.”

Saturday Night Live helped usher in a youth culture that grew to include the executives in charge of programming and their underlings.

“They didn’t get the older people’s points of reference,” Beatts says. “They hadn’t read the classics. They didn’t know black-and-white movies. And they weren’t embarrassed about not knowing. ... They were ironic and postmodern and all this crap.”

In 2004, Beatts says she pitched an idea for a show to a successful producer, a man about her age, and was thrilled when he responded enthusiastically. The next step was to meet with various networks to sell the idea. But, she says, the producer’s agent discouraged him, telling him, “I can’t walk into an office with a couple of alta kockers like you guys.” (Alta kocker is a Yiddish term that translates essentially as “old fart.”)

Beatts acknowledges that ageism may not be solely to blame for what happened to her career. She says she might have hampered herself through “poor career choices, alienating the wrong people, having a big mouth.” But she says the discrimination is real, and the size of the settlement is “a slap on the wrist.”

Writers in Hollywood are a fractious group, so it’s not surprising that some feel the lawsuit was misguided. Craig Mazin, whose credits include two installments in the Scary Movie series, is among the critics. He believes there are many reasons why writers may get less work as they age, including a simple lack of talent.

“Everybody breaks in when they’re young,” he says. “It’s a marathon, and over the course of a career you have to continue to prove yourself. The people who don’t have the goods are going to get winnowed out. Are they getting discriminated against?”

Mazin also points out that genres change over time. Television schedules used to be packed with sitcoms, for example. With far fewer on the air now, he says, it’s not surprising that people who excelled at writing them are finding fewer opportunities.

Mazin, who is 39, says he fully expects that he, too, may someday find that his services are less in demand. “This is professional sports,” he says. “One day it’ll be over, and you’ve got to go in knowing that.”

McCullough dismisses those arguments. He says good writers are versatile and can adapt when genres change. If he was good enough to get top jobs for years, why not now? “I still have a very vital life,” he says. “I’m not doddering. If I wrote a script, I could probably do it in three days.”

Life after TV

He’s not writing scripts anymore, though. He has moved on—he’s an executive with a transportation logistics firm now. But he still finds the settlement gratifying, and not just from a monetary standpoint. “It’s been a very long time coming,” McCullough says. “I’m not sure the money will be significant or life-changing. But it makes a point.”

And the point, he says, is that executives and agents should think twice before assuming that older writers can’t get the job done.

Beatts, who continues to pitch ideas, says she does sense a change since the lawsuit was settled. “I am finding that doors are a little more open than they were, say, five years ago,” she says. “I’m sort of in a ‘we’ll see’ mode.”

Kim Masters is host of The Business, public radio’s show about the business of entertainment, and editor-at-large for The Hollywood Reporter.