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School of Communication alumni panel signals coming shift in television writing

By Derrick Clifton (C12)

In a field being transformed by growing digital audiences and changing demographics, a star panel of television writers encouraged School of Communication students to cling to their originality during the annual Festival of Writing Writers Panel. The May 12 event in Annie May Swift Hall’s Helmerich Auditorium offered unfiltered, outspoken insights from seasoned writer-producers and an entertainment executive. The panelists were:

David Holstein (C05), writer/producer for the upcoming HBO comedy series, The Brink, and former writer/producer for Weeds and Raising Hope.

Darlene Hunt (C92), actor and writer, who created the critically acclaimed, award-winning Showtime series The Big C.

David Iserson (C00), film and TV writer and producer, whose credits include Saturday Night Live, United States of Tara, New Girl and, currently, Mad Men.

Wendy Steinhoff (C92), vice president of comedy development at Warner Bros. Television, who previously served as manager of drama programming at CBS Studios.

Moderator Geoffrey Tarson, a TV writer and lecturer of radio/television/film, kicked off the discussion by exploring the blurring lines between television comedy and drama, a trend otherwise known as “dramedy.” But what works for cable, panelists said, doesn’t always work for network programming.

From left: Wendy Steinhoff, David Holstein, Darlene Hunt, and David Iserson

“On a network, it’s episodic. The world exists and doesn’t change, and, every week, there’s a situation they have to fix,” Hunt said, stressing that network shows rarely follow any character changes from episode to episode. “On cable, it’s serialized. They want the cliffhanger at the end of the half-hour so that you come back … It naturally lends to drama, because you have to follow relationships, love and some of those ‘uh-oh’ dark moments.”

For network executives, however, the writing approach for cable series has prompted a shift in their ideas for show development.

“I think they are starting to see that we might be able to take more risks—not stack a script with over-the-top, crazy jokes and allow something to breathe and have poignancy to it,” Steinhoff said. “I’m hoping we can look towards cable and say, ‘look, that works’ and trust a broad audience to accept that and laugh at it.”

Before the panelists could consider tailoring their writing approach for cable, networks or even Amazon and Netflix, they had to pay their dues. Iserson and Holstein both recalled working in the Los Angeles area as production assistants, transporting scripts between studios in Burbank and Culver City, all while running important errands—including the proverbial cup o’ joe. It was during the busywork that they made key breakthroughs, and grew encouraged to continue writing.

“There was a writer who worked on [Saturday Night Live], and she was the lowest level writer… and her boyfriend was writing for Weekend Update,” said Iserson, who got the opportunity to submit five jokes for the SNL segment each week, in hopes that one would get picked. And it did. “One got on TV and Tina Fey sent me a check for $100. It was the greatest thing that ever happened to me,” he said. “I still have that check in my wallet and never cashed it.”

But for Holstein, whose trajectory began as a campus playwright, sitting next to Darlene Hunt on the panel was a “success moment” in itself for his television career. “I remember being a student and watching Darlene speak, and telling her story about Sean Hayes and pitching to Will and Grace,” he said. “So, that can all happen for you and it will.”

The panelists also reflected on the growing inclusion of female writers and executives within the television industry. Having had multiple scripts turned down for being “too female focused,” Hunt said she’s always excited when a female writer gets her show picked up.

“That tide is turning a bit. But, I’ll probably never have a show on FOX. They’re really male-centric and male-driven,” Hunt said. “Or, Sony always tells me, ‘really emphasize the male characters’ when we go into FOX. Sure. But they’re not idiots … You’ve just got to write what you know and keep on keepin’ on.”

During a talkback session following Tarson’s questions for the panel, which highlighted the industry’s peaks and pitfalls, the guests offered some words of encouragement for students in the room hoping to one day become television writers.

“What’s exciting about the times we’re working in is that there are so many more opportunities to be hired,” Holstein said, noting the increasing variety of programming and the growth of original series on streaming services such as Netflix. “Be original. It’s simple, but you need to set yourself apart.”

The annual Festival of Writing is co-hosted by the School of Communication’s Office of External Programs, Internships, and Career Services (EPICS) and the school’s MFA Program in Writing for Screen and Stage. Students were treated to selected scenes written by the panelists throughout the presentation.