There is an old adage, I don’t know who to attribute it to (probably Norman Lear), that theater is for actors, movies for directors, and television for producers. The logic behind it is fairly straight-forward and compelling.
No matter how much the director works to make their vision come to life on the stage, when the curtain rises the production succeeds or fails based on the choices the actors make that night, in that moment. They have all the power. Cinema is a different animal, granting considerably more influence to the director. They place the camera, and therefore the audience, wherever they want. They can demand take after take until they fill the frame with the vision they hold in their mind. They can lean over the shoulder of the editor at every step, telling the story they want to tell. The director does not, by any means, hold unchecked power, but they are the high-leverage determinant of a project’s success or failure.
Television as a producer’s medium is, in my opinion, slightly out of date. When people spoke of the power of producers within television, they were speaking of network television; a landscape with limited channels where few would ever be so foolish to dismiss the power of the median voter theorem. Producers thrived because they made the high leverage decision: what gets to be on television. The actors, the writing, the (ha!) cinematography, those were all 2nd-order concerns, trivial concerns really, that lived in the shadow of the one decision that truly mattered: did you get to be on television?
Whole lines of economic research and theory center on the economies of scale and network effects. If you’ve ever wondered why books about old Hollywood have some of the craziest stories you’ve ever heard, it all comes back to the simple, but rich, economics of a marketplace with massive network effects for consumers (you want to watch what everyone else is watching), enormous fixed costs for setting up a network that absolutely trivialize the marginal costs of producing a show, the nearly zero marginal costs of broadcasting, and the enormous barriers to entry for potential rival networks. Coupled with the enormous status of associated with “being on television”, you arrive at an outcome where the artistic quality of content is almost irrelevant to market success, labor is willing to work for peanuts, and your capital inputs are almost exclusively fixed costs. Who’s the high leverage determinant of outcomes? The person who gets to decide what gets to be put on television.
That world is gone and I am grateful for it. Television is now the medium for writers.
We live in an endless wonderland of channels and content. The median viewer is still well served by a multitude of outlets, but it is within the microbiomes of this new ecology of entertainment that most of us are lured towards. If the defining attribute of the supply of entertainment has become its specificity, then the defining attribute of our demand is its depth. We demand 32 film superstructures with fully fleshed out worlds within worlds within worlds. We demand 6 seasons and a movie exploring the relationships between a community college study group and their metacommentary on film and television and how it has come to define how we view relationships. We demand 10th season callbacks to a sight gag from season 2 that was originally an homage something Truffaut did (which was itself an homage to Hitchcock). We want the story to keep going and going and going, and if has to end, it sure as hell had better not all been a dream.
Showrunners, who are typically the final typewriter that most scripts go through, and their teams of writers are producing the content that we voraciously binge. I don’t (want to) know how many hours of television I watch a year. but I have no doubt that I’m consuming 1000’s of manhours of writing, which makes it hard to complain about the price of HBOMax when I’m effectively paying pennies per hour for good writing. Maybe good writing has always been in short supply, but for the first time it is the the high leverage determinant of the success and failure of outcomes– good writing is the short side of the market. So if you want to make it as a writer, keep writing! But if you want to make a career and pay a mortgage as a writer, I suggest you bone up on your television story structure.
NB: for the couple dozen or so of you who read this, be advised that I am Mike Makowsky, the economics professor, not Mike Makowsky the talented screenwriter. Please do not blame him for my opinions, though I do encourage you to watch his movie Bad Education, which is excellent.