For reasons I've never been able to fathom, writers have always been treated like red-haired stepchildren in the Hollywood food chain. Jack Warner infamously described his writers as, "schmucks with Underwoods" (Underwoods were typewriters, the Macs of their day). It was even used as the title of a book containing interviews with screenwriters from the golden age of Hollywood. Think of the classic films Warners produced during that era, and read that quote again. Think of the stars they were writing for, including Bette Davis, James Cagney and Humphrey Bogart, and read that quote again.
Even successful novelists who were lured by the studios got shoddy treatment. Raymond Chandler famously said, "If my books had been any worse I should not have been invited to Hollywood and if they had been any better I should not have come." Most of them only stayed for the money.
Money paid to writers - or lack thereof - has been a point of contention the past few years due to The Huffington Post's refusal to pay a lot of their freelancers. They seem to think it's enough just to have a byline on their site. This came up during a panel at the L.A. Times Festival of Books a few months back. The argument is that writing is work and that writers are entitled to be paid for their work, just like anyone else.
Now comes news that The Late Show with Stephen Colbert is offering aspiring late night writers a chance to "audition" by submitting a packet of cold openings, jokes and sketches for a chance to join the show's writing staff. I have a number of problems with this.
Asking for writing samples is one thing. Writers have samples on hand. To have to create a packet specifically for the show - without any guarantee of compensation - seems like they're just looking for free material. By my count the submission packet has to included thirteen different bits. And there's no way that there isn't anyone on this show or at CBS who doesn't know any experienced, qualified writers who are looking for work and could step right in with little or no fanfare. I haven't bothered to look at the show's ratings, but it smacks of a publicity ploy, not to mention it could open a big fat can of lawsuit worms for the network if they use some of the submitted material, or anything similar, and some aspiring writer thinks the show ripped him or her off. And it's not like CBS and The Late Show can't afford to pay their staff.
It also seems a bit beneath CBS as a network. I would buy this if it was MTV or some obscure cable or local station, but I would still have a hard time taking it seriously. People in the entertainment industry always know someone looking for a gig. When I worked in HR at a post production company, we never once advertised for a position that was post-related. If a spot opened up, someone knew someone who could fill it right away. The only position we ever ran an ad for was a sales job.
Does anyone really believe for a second that some aspiring writer is going to be plucked from obscurity to write for a CBS show? It would be great if it does, but that's not how the industry works. If they were asking for one sketch, or one cold opening, that would be one thing. But this "packet" involves a lot of work with no guarantee that the writer is going to be seriously considered for employment. Not sure what the show was going for with this ploy, but based on a lot of the comments on the Deadline article linked above, it seems to be falling flat.
I will be interested to see what the Writers Guild has to say about this. Even more interesting will be if we ever find out where the next Late Show staff writer comes from.