Interview with Jeffrey Stepakoff, Author and TV Writer

Posted by The Writers Store on

Jeffrey Stepakoff has been writing professionally in Hollywood since 1988. He has credits on shows including The Wonder Years, Sisters, Major Dad, Beauty and the Beast, and Dawson's Creek. Stepakoff has also created and developed pilots for many of the major studios and networks, and has developed and written major motion pictures, including Disney's Tarzan and Brother Bear. His new book, Billion-Dollar Kiss, is about his life and career in the screenwriting business.

Jeffrey sat down with The Writers Store to answer a few questions about the TV industry.

How did you become a TV writer?

In truth, I kind of stumbled into TV. I was at Carnegie Mellon in Pittsburgh getting my MFA in Playwriting. Like all good playwriting students, my plan when I graduated was to move to New York, and spend my life doing black-box theater. Then I met John Wells (Executive Producer of ER, Third Watch and West Wing) when he visited Carnegie as an alumni speaker. He spoke of a place where sets were built but didn't come down after a few performances, a place where writers were not only respected, but needed. So instead of heading east, I wrote a spec TV script, sent it to John who sent it to some agents, put all my worldly belongings in my Honda hatchback, and headed west. I started writing for TV a few months later. I suppose I should mention that it's not always this easy to break in. The truth is, it requires three things to break into TV: talent, passion and luck. Sometimes that last element can be frustratingly elusive.

Do you think it was a good decision to become a TV writer?

One of the best I've ever made! TV is a writer's medium. Unlike film, which is a director's medium - meaning most screenwriters turn in their screenplay and a couple years later they're invited to the premiere. In TV, the writer is in control and you can see the fruits of your labor almost immediately. We write, cast, produce - from story room to set, from concept to final cut, in TV the writer has constant creative authority.

What do you think about the reality TV craze?

Reality TV has been around since the days of Candid Camera. Then came COPS and The Real World. But make no mistake about it; we are presently at a watershed moment in the history of global media. On the one hand, some of the best American writing and storytelling is currently being done for television, everything from The Office to Friday Night Lights, from Big Love to 24. On the other hand, what Paddy Chayefsky wrote about satirically thirty years ago in Network has come to pass, and then some. I often wonder what he would have thought about Fear Factor or Are You Hot? or Wife Swap.

Let me be clear: I am not opposed to reality TV; I am opposed to bad TV. I enjoy watching The Donald fire wannabes just as much as anyone else. I see the entertainment value in Survivor. And I'm willing to confess, one of my great guilty pleasures is American Idol. But when unscripted shows started to overwhelm quality programming, I felt it was time to say something. That's one of the main reasons I wrote Billion-Dollar Kiss.

What do you think are the current trends (reality TV versus scripted) in TV writing and why? Which is more profitable for the networks? Why?

Many people have said over the last few years that reality TV was just another fad, a trend that would quickly fade away. Today, the sitcom as we knew it is essentially dead, and every major network now has an "Alternative TV" department. There is another myth that reality is programmed simply because it is cheap. It is cheap but, it also has a very limited upside, in that reality has little or no syndication value. Very few people want to watch reruns of The Amazing Race or buy the Pimp My Ride DVD. Reality TV shows will never be worth the $3 billion generated by syndicated hits like Seinfeld. But scripted TV shows, as valuable as they are in success, also cost a great deal of money to make. The average one-hour drama today costs about $2.5 million an episode. Most networks only have one or two successful series every year. And for every successful show that runs for several seasons and makes it into syndication, there are as many as a hundred pilot scripts that are purchased but not made, and a dozen pilots produced but not picked up for series, and a handful of new shows which are made but quickly cancelled. During the '90s, syndication revenues rose to unprecedented levels - as did the cost of those of us who could create these products. Studio executives were essentially saloon hall gamblers, wheeling, dealing and backing prospectors. But in 1999, Who Wants to be a Millionaire created a new business model. The studios realized that they could make a nominal profit, and they didn't have to pay writers the exorbitant paychecks. In many ways, reality TV became a threat to TV writers.

There has been buzz in the industry about a writers strike. What is the story behind that? What is your take?

We are at a pivotal time in the entertainment industry. Films don't make a profit in the movie theater any more. Why go to the movies when you can download motion pictures and watch them on your home theater? Kids with digital cameras are making their own TV pilots and posting them on the web. YouTube has scared the bejesus out of Hollywood. The entire broadcast television model as we know it is about to become history as people watch TV shows on their iPods, lap tops and cellphones. The '88 strike stopped TV for five months and did irrevocable damage to the business. When the strike finally ended, nine percent of the audience had simply disappeared, and network audience erosion hasn't stopped since. If a strike were to occur in 2007 when the WGA (Writers Guild of America) contract expires, the damage to TV, to global media, not to mention the economy, would be devastating. TV, particularly broadcast network TV, could lose a large part of its continually shrinking and highly fragmented audience for good.

Most people know that there is some writing involved in "reality TV." Is their work-life really much different from scripted television writers?

Not only are most reality shows scripted by writers, but these writers are working under dreadful conditions. They work seven days a week, some over eighty-four hours a week, sometimes for as little as $7.41 an hour. Reality TV productions are the sweatshops of modern day Hollywood.

Why do you think people are so fascinated with the TV industry and why is it so hard for young writers to break into it?

When I told my family and friends I was going to go study writing in the mid to late'80s, they thought I was nuts. I didn't know anyone who was making a living writing film or TV at that time. There was no Joss Whedon or Aaron Sorkin or Kevin Williamson. When I was growing up, kids didn't tell their parents, 'I want to be the next Norman Lear.' Becoming an astronaut or president seemed more reasonable than Hollywood writer. But that changed during the '90s. There was an explosion in new networks, in great shows, all led by the visions of new writers who were not going into theater or even screenwriting, but television. Yes, like most things that people want to do with their lives, it's hard to break in to TV. Today, stories and entertainment are just as vital to our economy as oil and steel once were. Creative content is now the great commodity and writing is the ultimate career to have these days.

Why is the writers' room off limits to executives and TV talent?

Because in order to come up with material for twenty-two episodes of television, people have to dig into some places that they often don't want go. When you're looking for new story material every week, anything is fair game. Writers talk about the most embarrassing, most personal things in their lives, things they would never publicly reveal. I know things about my colleagues that they would never reveal to their spouses or even their shrinks. I've seen people, locked in a room for 16 hours, laughing, screaming, and crying. And when I say anything goes in the story room, I mean anything. Sexual harassment laws don't even apply. A few years ago the conversation in the Friends story room got rather raunchy, and one of the writer's assistants decided to sue. Just this year, the California Supreme Court ruled against her, finding that the TV story process cannot be called sexual harassment even if it offends those involved. What other business has an "anything goes" policy?

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