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Veteran TV Writers Share Advice about Navigating an Ever-Changing Medium

Eric Charmelo (WCAS95) and Nicole Snyder (C97), Northwestern alumni and the writing team that created and produced Ringer for CBS/The CW starring Sarah Michelle Gellar, spoke to a riveted student audience on October 4 about their two decades working in television.

“When we first started, it was so easy to watch every show on TV,” Snyder said. “But now, everything is more niche. There’s so much more content, and in terms of writing, there are so many more jobs. It used to be you’d have to scramble to find work, but now networks are knocking down our door.”

Charmelo agreed, adding that this second golden age of television has made writing for TV more satisfying than ever before.

“There’s a Renaissance in television right now,” he said. “Every film writer wants to work in TV… Writing for TV is long-form storytelling. Each episode is a chapter of a book…. And in TV, you can produce your own shows. You can do many jobs. In feature film, you’re basically the low man on the totem pole.”

Charmelo joked, “If you’re power hungry, then TV is definitely where you want to be.”

The pair was invited to Evanston to take part in the first EPICS Connections Speaker Series of the 2016-17 Academic year. The event, moderated by Radio/Television/Film lecturer Brett Neveu, was held in Scott Hall’s Guild Lounge.

Charmelo and Snyder, whose credits include John Waters’ Love you to Death, NBC’s Do No Harm, and The CW’s cult hit Supernatural, will also co-executive produce a new NBC/Uni TV drama called Midnight Texas based on the book series by Charlaine Harris.

They both said that networks still track ratings, but in different ways. Now, live television viewing is monitored, but so are those viewers who tune in three days or even one week later.

“The whole paradigm for TV is changing,” Charmelo said. “When we started, there was no streaming, but now no one watches live TV. It’s obsolete. Everyone wants to binge watch.”

Audiences are also more fractured than they used to be.

“Ratings are less important now,” Snyder said. “Last year, on Supernatural, we got a .6 rating and the network said, ‘that’s solid.’ Years ago, if you got that number, you’d be cancelled.”

The key to success now, Charmelo said, is to create a series that garners enough attention people will want to tune in days or weeks after the first episode aired.

Stranger Things is a series that was buzzy enough that people wanted to watch it a week later,” he said. “These two brothers used every trope from the ‘80s and they mashed it up and made it fresh. It stuck with people… Word of mouth really made that show.”

Neither Charmelo nor Snyder knew as undergrads that they’d be TV writers. Charmelo was pre-med and Snyder was a School of Communication Theatre major who happened into a writing class in Radio/TV/Film by accident. Her theatre background, however, has helped her in many ways as a writer.

“It’s made me less afraid to speak up in a writers’ room,” she said. “And, it’s helped me really get into a character and emulate that voice. And, of course, it’s helped with pitching. You’ve got to be able to pitch your work, and some writers just stare at their notes or read straight from their notepad.”

Charmelo said he decided against his original plan in college to go to medical school after spending a week in LA with his former fraternity brother, Greg Berlanti (C94), a successful writer, producer, and director, who created the WB’s Everwood and Jack and Bobby.

“I loved film and pop culture and after I spent a year out there working as a PA, I knew I wanted to stay,” he said.

Charmelo advised young writers to write an original pilot if they want to get noticed. “It all starts with a good idea and then a sample,” he said. In the past it was all about watching a show already on TV and writing an episode for that. Today, however, he said most networks want original material.

Synder advised aspiring writers to move to LA and to meet people. Snyder and Charmelo, who did not know each other at Northwestern, met by accident through a mutual friend in LA. They soon realized they shared a lot of things in common and the writing partnership began.

“You have to build relationships,” she said. “Be kind. Be likeable. Yes, you need talent and to work hard, but you have to build your network. It’s funny to say ‘be kind’ in LA, but because you spend eight, 10, or even 12 hours in a writers’ room a day, you have to get along with others. And writers love to gossip… Your reputation will get around.”

Arianna Chu, an RTVF freshman who attended the event, said the discussion opened her eyes to writing and other careers in television.

“I liked how they talked about the industry as a whole,” Chu said. “I know I want to go into something in entertainment, but I’m still deciding what that might be. I liked hearing about the writers’ room and about how shows are made. It gave me lots to think about.”

— Cara Lockwood