Yay for Schmucks with Underwoods!

Buried among the woeful news of recent weeks is a surprising victory. The TV writers who’ve been suing the networks, studios and talent agencies for age discrimination for almost ten years just won a $70 million settlement – the largest age discrimination award in history. It will change the landscape, the way employers treat workers, and possibly what we see on TV.

I had thought this case would drag on for generations, like the lawsuit in Dickens’ novel “Bleak House.” I joined it as a plaintiff in 2000 and figured I would die before it was resolved. (20 of the writers did)

A relatively small number of unemployed writers were going up against multi-national corporations with battalions of lawyers and deep pockets. And screenwriters have always been at the bottom of the totem pole. Jack Warner of Warner Bros referred to his staff writers as “schmucks with Underwoods.” (for those too young to remember, an Underwood was a typewriter)

The challenge at the outset was: few of the writers I knew wanted to join the suit, fearing they’d be blacklisted. Even if they had evidence that they’d been passed over for jobs because of their age, they still were hoping for a break, a comeback. The law prohibits companies from discriminating against anyone bringing legal action against them, but as my lawyer told me, “There’s going to be a list and everyone will know who’s on it.”

People who aren’t familiar with the TV biz would ask me, “Why should writers be discriminated against for their age? They’re not on camera. Doesn’t age bring them wisdom and make them even better?”

Yes, it does, but the biz wants to attract young viewers and believes anyone over 40 is out of touch with youth culture. This may be true, but it’s simple to hire young writers on staff who can supply the references, music and current slang. That alone doesn’t bring success. What generates success is the ability to create compelling characters and tell powerful stories — a craft which seasoned writers have honed. David Chase, for example, was in his 50’s when he created “The Sopranos,” which drew huge numbers of young fans.

The problem I thought we’d have, in proving the case, is that talent and ability are subjective. The networks could assert they weren’t hiring us because our work wasn’t good enough. That would be hard to support, though, against plaintiffs who’d won Emmys like Tracy Keenan Wynn, who wrote “The Autobiography of Miss Jane Pittman” and “The Longest Yard,” and Ann Marcus, who co-created “Mary Hartman, Mary Hartman.”

The proof, it turned out, was in the numbers. For members of the Writers Guild, statistics show that income drops off after 40, drops more sharply after 50 and disappears after 60, except for a few mega stars.

I was fortunate in being able to write into my 50s. For 27 years, writing dramas for TV was my principal source of income. Then, at 57, after years when I’d been struggling, my agent fired me because, he said, “I can’t sell you to the networks. You’re a terrific writer, but you’ve been around too long and people think you don’t have `edge.’”

What?! I’d always been a ground-breaker, exploring the edges. I created the series, “HeartBeat,” on ABC, which was the first ensemble of women who didn’t have a boss above them and featured the first lesbian character on a network series. I pushed the limits of what was acceptable in terms of sexuality and language. I concluded that having no “edge” was code for “old.”

I was not alone. My lawyer said all his clients over 50 were having trouble finding work, no matter how talented or successful they’d been. And you could see it reflected on TV: there were few or no shows featuring characters over 50.

So I joined the class action suit, figuring I had nothing to lose. A year later, I got a job writing a pilot and withdrew my name as a plaintiff. But when the job ended and the pilot didn’t make it to the air, I spent a year groveling for jobs I wouldn’t have considered taking before. And I couldn’t get those either!

Not wanting to spend the years ahead scratching and scraping like Willy Loman, I left Hollywood and put my name back on the lawsuit.

And I forgot about it. Every so often I’d get an email on the status of the case, and the news wasn’t good. Then a few years ago, things shifted. AARP joined the suit and the parties began mediation. The networks, studios and agencies have all settled, except for one agency, CAA. They all deny they discriminated against writers based on age, but they settled because, as one attorney stated: “With years of disruptive litigation remaining, it made sense to bring these protracted cases to a close.”

Translation: They didn’t think they’d win.

Will this settlement end ageism in the biz? Of course not. But no one will be able to say openly, as many agents did before, “We’re not taking on any clients over 40.”

The irony is that none of the writers in the suit wanted cash, we wanted work — to be able to put our ideas and stories out to large audiences. We wanted affirmative action for geezers.

Nevertheless, it’s a landmark legal precedent, and shines a light on practices that have affected the nature and quality of what’s offered on the public airwaves.

PLEASE LEAVE A COMMENT: Have you been affected by or party to age discrimination?

For more information on the suit, click here.

 

—————

Subscribe to Sara’s Blog:

CLICK HERE to order The December Project.

 

I look forward to hearing your thoughts and conversing. So please leave a comment below.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

33 thoughts on “Yay for Schmucks with Underwoods!

  1. Anonymous

    I think people face this in almost every profession. The counter argument is: it's time to make room for younger people to enter these fields.

    Reply
  2. Beverly

    Sara, it's time for someone with moxy to create a media network for the AARPers. I, for one, am really tired of all the shows that bore me with their senseless humor. How 'bout it? Cordially, Beverly Rose
    The BAG Lady…
    BIG
    AUDACIOUS
    GOALS bubbybev@whidbey.com

    Reply
  3. Rob Spears

    Paraphrasing…How many times has it been said that you can judge the morality ( or insert your own word like wisdom, compassion, strength,etc.) of a society by the way it treats its young and aging members? We have become a wasteland for the wise and those born outside the manor.

    Reply
  4. injaynesworld

    I wrote TV-movies for about 20 years. My last one was in 2004. Then I was aged out of the business, as well. The thing I began noticing was development exec started becoming an “entry-level” position and they all wanted to play with kids their own age. I think it had less to do for writing for their so-called target audience than the fact that these youngsters knew little about the writing process and were intimidated by those of us who did. I remember “HeartBeat” very well. A great show. All your work was great. One of my idols was Fay Kanin who got to work much longer than those of us in the next tier of writers coming up. I was very happy to see that this suit was successful. Thanks for writing about it. I've also enjoyed your pieces on your trip to Afghanistan. If you're in the neighborhood, drop by and see what I'm doing now. http://www.injaynesworld.blogspot.com/ Best wishes, Jayne

    Reply
  5. Marta Vago

    Glad to hear about the outcome of the suit. I, for one, loved my IBM Selectric II. Should have never gotten rid of it. BTW – I wish I could hear your presentation re: Afghanistan, but L.A. is just a tad far away. Marta Vago, Santa Monica, CA

    Reply
  6. Ann Berry

    Absolutely I've been affected as were many of my co-workers when I was part of a HUGE layoff in 2009 by IBM. Talk about going up against a beast… I decided life was too short to fight it even though I was employed there for 27 years, numerous awards and always the highest of employee ratings but when you get close to 30 years of employment and full retirement all of a sudden your skills are no longer needed… so now I'm trying to get into the film industry in Austin where at least my years of business experience seem to be needed by the young and disorganized!

    Reply
  7. Terri

    I am not diretly affected by this lawsuit, but I have to say that I LOVED Heartbeat. All these years later I still have a warm place in my heart for your characters. Thanks for writing it.

    Reply
  8. Anonymous

    sara,

    most of us know what an Underwood is — i certainly do because i started my writing career on a Royal typewriter when i was 15 — but what is a schmuck?

    Reply
  9. rick, the celestial cowboy poet

    the older a writer is, the better that person should be able to write.

    the problem with young writers — even the brilliant ones — is that they lack the experience that older authors have. of course, i may be self-serving, sara. like you, i am over the half-century mark. but i have been widely published, worked on a movie or two, got a couple of books in print and still feel my best years are ahead.

    sara, i know you never get personal on this site — damn it. but maybe you, with your clout, should form an organization of writers over 50. a kind of union of writers, and go into production with some financial backers of your own. we could put out our own network and show these young kids what good writing is all about. i will make a wager that when the ratings come in, we win!

    Reply
  10. GBDavo

    you go girrl! i loved Dr Quinn of which you were a part of for a while and i am sure it had your stamp on it.

    i also loved your novel/ autobiography/memoirs called Cowboy

    i would love to catch your show in Colo, but I am in NYC so i don't think that will happen. Coming to NY?

    Reply
  11. arnelle

    Sara. I've been reading you for years
    and always enjoy.
    I have some special thoughts about the general discrimination in Hollywood.
    Some years ago I worked for a studio head, that was my intro. From thereI went to a household name and then my own writing. I live in Palm Springs, during the winter and if you're ever in the neighborhood plslet me know. cheers

    Reply
  12. arnelle

    ps. Rick has a great idea. Go Sara.
    Perhaps you could call it —–
    oops I was going to give suggestion
    and decided no control needed.

    You know what you're doing

    Reply
  13. Allen K. Bahn President American Consulting Services, Inc.

    Dear Ms Davidson,
    Yes I have faced discrimination. My approach was to build my own business. I told my clients that if they could not use the services of my company then I would find other clients.
    Talent finds ways to surface. When large American companies would not talk to me I started an offshore software company in 1968 in India. Every one thought I was crazy. When US auto industry refused to hire talented people they went to Toyota to offer their services.
    Those who ignore Talent and drive of personnel shall always regret. The movie industry is filled with horror stories .I have treated all my colleagues with courtesy and consideration

    Reply
  14. Sharon

    Way to go, Underwood-ites! As a stage actor, with 30 years of experience, I know it all begins with the script. I, too, am pleased with the decision.

    Congratulations,
    ~Sharon~

    Reply
  15. Keith

    We just saw Jason Alexander at the Kravis Center in West Palm Beach (wonderful & warm place to vacation & escape the cold weather!). He was Donny Clay, a motivational speaker who is a member of the Society for Human Motivational Understanding and Knowledge (SHMUK) so your Subject line caught my eye.

    Glad that the lawsuit was resolved favorably although I wouldn't hold out much hope that it will change the attitudes & behaviors of any of the studio decision makers. Still it is nicer to win one of these rather than lose. It sounds like the studios were planning to stall & wait you guys out until everyone died off until AARP got involved. They seem to have political clout & can't be ignored so it was a good idea to get them involved.

    I enjoyed your articles on your trip to Afghanistan.

    Reply
  16. Pat Kendall

    Yay YOU, Sara — and everyone who put their name on the suit! Yeah, it's only cash — or is it? Seems to me it's the thin edge of the future, connecting — hard — with TV's cash-oriented network folks in the (only?) place it hurts. Thank you for this good news!

    Reply
  17. Dr Barbra

    Whoopee! What part of the 70 mill will you be getting?

    I am attributing my decline in caseload to the economy, because I think everyone knows that therapists only get better as they get older, don't they??

    Reply
  18. Jim

    Kudos, my dear. Loved reading about this suit, the outcome, and “schmucks with Underwoods” title–made me flash on packing for Dartmouth with my treasured portable Underwood with an extra ribbon or two. Seem to remember the red and black combo ribbon–how high tech!

    Reply
  19. Sara Davidson

    Thanks, all, for your support and cheers. I'm totally out of the TV biz now, and organizing is not my skill, but if one of you wants to set up a new network, I'll write for it.

    For Anon who asked what a schmuck is, it's a Yiddish term for a jerk and literally means penis. Here's what dictionary.com says:

    1. n. A clumsy or stupid person; an oaf.

    2. n. a jerk; a repellent male. (Also a rude term of address. Yiddish.) : Who is that stupid schmuck over there?

    3. a penis. (Yiddish. Usually objectionable.) : If I hear that joke about a camel's schmuck one more time, I'm going to scream.

    Reply
  20. BEVKAI

    Hi, I am so glad you are back online!! Had to get rid of my 40-lb Royal last year. Couldn't get parts easily.

    The movie business here on Oahu is particularly egregious when it comes to agism. A local humor columnist says it is great fun to sit around a table with guys and “make up shit.” He was speaking of his time writing for Baywatch Hawaii… and note that he said “guys.'

    There will be a big beach party in Waikiki Saturday. The premier of “Lost” for its last season will be shown after sunset. I look at the show – -and what I see is a bunch of pretty people, all under age 40, getting dirty out at the Boy Scout Camp. Seeing fiction acted out with Reality as a backdrop really brings it home. It all comes out of the writers' heads.

    Years ago, during a show called “The Marker,” the director became impressed by a clutch of older women who brought depth and experience to the auditions. Moi included.

    The producer agreed that we all were very good, but “too old”.

    Both the producer and the director died very shortly after that. The star of The Marker was Richard Greiko……There is irony in there somewhere.

    Have you noticed how many houseplants run wild in the “jungle” of the 'Lost' island???? Once you begin to actually LOOK at what is going on in a scene, you can tell they shot it three feet from a parking lot. According to what is written.

    And the people are sooooo pretty.,

    Last night, Letterman quoted Martin Mull: “Show business is high school with money.”

    I keep dreaming of a part like the one of the elderly woman, Agatha, in Magnum P.I. She was so good in a background bit that they added her to the show – — – – it isn't as if she was an inspiration of the writers. She created her own place. And I tell myself to dream on.

    So glad the suit came out well, but I don't expect that it will change anything for at least another generation. Civil Rights and ending Gender Discrimination took at least that long to become a part of the average mindset.

    Progress is glacial, but it does happen……If a part were written by or for a Black man from Honolulu, no one would have believed it even a decade ago.

    I always believed that “penis' in Yiddish was “putz”.

    Love and Aloha, Y'all

    Reply
  21. rick, the celestial cowboy poet

    THANKS for the definition, sara. now i know where my jewish friends are coming from. viva la schmucks!

    Reply
  22. Greg B

    Congratulations. Great story!
    I don't know anything about the TV business, but as a headhunter can confirm that age bias is a reality in most every business. Have you read about the numbers of 50-something men getting cosmetic surgery to look younger and stay competitive in the business world?
    Aging in itself doesn't necessarily make a person irrelevant in any endeavor.

    Reply
  23. Anonymous

    I read about the story when it was in the news and I immediately thought of you! I wondered if you were part of it and how happy you'd be, whether you were or not. I'm one of those schmucks with Underwoods and I'm giddy over the outcome of this lawsuit!

    Reply
  24. Anonymous

    Hooray for the little guys! But the way things are going in these United States, they find a way to get the Supreme Court to say old writers aren't persons and therefore have no right to redress, etc.

    It would be so great to see well written shows on Hulu! I thoroughly enjoyed “It's Complicated” about life after 50. Now we need life after 70.

    Reply
  25. deb

    I don't understand…if what the writers who were party to this suit really wanted was not cash, but to end (or at least make more difficult) age discrimination & if the industry felt they were going to lose the case, why did you settle for a cash payment & not even get an admission of wrongdoing? If you really wanted to make an impact–not just collect a check–wouldn't you have stuck it out & brought it to court?

    Reply
  26. Anonymous

    Sara, I can so totally identify with this! I've been laid off yet again – 2nd time in the past 8 months – and I'm realizing I'll have to start dyeing my hair again when I go out for interviews (I let it go gray because I like my natural color).

    I'm high-energy and have a fantastic resume, but in this society that comes 2nd when you are face-to-face with an interviewer.

    Keep up the good writing,

    Roberta

    Reply
  27. Anonymous

    Age discrimination? I'm a female actor over 50. What do you think??? Although I have been fortunate to work with some smaller theaters in the DC area, the number of 'older' female actors is limited to just a few – you see the same faces year after year …

    Reply
  28. crapshootdater

    Congrats on being part of this landmark case! Hope it pays off for you.

    Yes, Sara, I too have experienced the age discrimination. I've been trying for over 15 months just to get any kind of job (although I have a master's degree), and can't even get a friggin interview!!! And I have a great resume!

    I think because I'm 59 and starting a career late in life, no one who offers benefits wants to hire someone who might need those benefits earlier rather than later, or who is near retirement age. It's absolutely frustrating!

    A few years ago when I started back to college I truly thought my age would work in my favor (as a therapist), but I'm sadly finding that is not the case.

    By the way, I started out my career 30-something years ago with a portable Olivetti. Remember those? Is there a graveyard for old manual typewriters somewhere???

    Reply
  29. Barbara Ross

    Good luck with the suit, and you forgot to mention superstar Larry David. I guess you did when you mentioned the few superstars. But he certainly is no teeny bopper, and his show would not be as super if he were! I personally did not relate to Seinfeld, but my kids did. But I relate to his own show. Who wants a show aimed at 20-somethings, by the way?

    Barbara Ross, been around the block
    Atlanta, GA

    Reply
  30. Laurie K.

    Sara-I say BRAVO to your lawsuit win and I am planning on coming to the talk (unless a crisis breaks out in my household) You are an amazing woman – thank you for your professional vigor and your interests in important issues here and in the Afganistan.

    Reply
  31. Sam

    Sara, I think this is a good start… I wonder what the numbers are re viewers in the next 5 years, which is supposedly there will be a huge bump with the boomers.
    Certainly, someone will have to start doing more shows for them?

    Reply
  32. Ellen

    I agree with Sam: in the end, it's all about how many viewers of each age there are, and the consumerism they are urged during commercials to engage in. Between ads for Viagra, Centrum Silver, pills for various aging organs, life insurance and Boniva, the consumers of these products will possibly not stay tuned in to see a sitcom about a 14-yr-old country singer.

    Reply
  33. Dr. Pam Brill

    Even without digging them out, I can assure you that the stats support that income drops with age and even moreso for women (big surprise…)- even when we want to work and be productive. There is nothing to support the beliefs that those over 50 don't have edge other than the assumptions that those over 50 don't have edge- or maybe that those under 50 do – and that's debatable.
    Life, too often, is a turf war- like Lord of the Flies. We naturally perceive threat in anything that is different including those who are younger or older. We defend our turf- positions, points of view- as if we are defending our lives- or lifestyles. In reality, it takes wisdom to realize that there is abundance and that no one need be thrown under the bus for others to thrive- especially those best at driving…

    Reply