Talking out of School

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This is Rob Long with Martini Shot on KCRW.

I went to a lunch the other day hosted by a very high-up-there studio executive who works with a lot of writers. It was a small lunch, and I was seated next to a visiting college professor.

"Tell me," he asked. "how does the whole TV business work?"

Which, you know, is a complicated question, because the real answer is "not very well," but it isn't really what the Dean was asking me. What he was asking me, it turned out, was where, exactly, do writers rank in the TV power hierarchy.

So I told him. We're like eunuchs in the Ottoman Empire. Incredibly powerful. Totally indispensable. Well compensated. Missing a couple of items.

And I told him, ultimately, what I tell everyone who asks that question. That the key to understanding the television business is in grasping the weird, inefficient quirk that puts writers -- cranky, paranoid writers; lazy, shiftless, bs-artist writers; profligate, don't understand money writers; actually in charge of things.

Well, not in-charge in-charge, but a lot more powerful than their counterparts in the feature realm. Central, anyway, to things like casting and set construction and time management.

That, of course, led to more questions, like how do you sit there and listen to idiotic notes, how do you get budget overruns approved, and how, basically, do you as a writer and an executive producer manage a process so personal and complicated and Byzantine.

So I told him. I told him that a great budgetary trick is to promise to do what we call a "bottle show" in one of the early episodes -- a bottle show is a show shot entirely on existing sets, which results in tens of thousands of dollars of savings. If the show is successful, no one will ever hold you to that promise. If it's cancelled, the promise is moot anyway. But the moment you promise it, the budget heat comes off. I told him that the trick with any bad suggestion or network concern is to postpone action -- say, "We'll take a look at that," or "Great idea, we'll try that in editing," or the very best conversation ended of them all, "Can I get back to you on that?"

Halfway through my Cobb Salad I realized that as closely as the dean was listening, my studio executive host was listening closer.

"I only caught the tail end of that," he said. "But I get the feeling I should have been listening to the whole thing."

"I was just, you know, goofing around," I said, childishly. Because all studio executives think all writers are children.

But you know, what I should have done is just repeated the whole thing. Gotten it all aired out. Because part of what's wrong with television today -- I mean, aside from the rotten shows and the repetitive storylines -- is that everyone who works in it is locked up in their own little corner -- executives move up the executive ranks; writers move up the writers ranks; parallel tracks that never intersect. This was a perfect opportunity to break the pattern. After all, I've never made much of a secret of the fact that at some point in my career, I'd sincerely like to work at a network or a studio. Just to see what things look like from that side.

"I only caught the tail end of something about a 'bottle show.'" My host said. "What was that about?"

"Can I get back to you on that?" I said.

That's it for this week. Next week, we'll get stuff for free. For KCRW, this is Rob Long with Martini Shot.



Rob Long