Bogus trend story of the week: The Wall Street Journal discovers a zillion playwrights writing for TV!

Media criticism.
March 2 2010 6:27 PM

Bogus Trend Story of the Week: Playwrights Working for TV

The Wall Street Journal discovers a zillion playwrights writing for television!

TV and remote.
Pick a channel, any channel: There's bound to be a playwright behind the show

The Wall Street Journal takes bogus trend story of the week honors with its Feb. 26 piece "The Teleplay's the Thing: A Growing Number of Top Playwrights Are Migrating to TV." After noting in the fifth paragraph that playwrights such as David Mamet and Theresa Rebeck "have found a second home on TV before," the Journal makes this sweeping statement:

But some in the TV world say that the traffic [of writers] from stage to TV has never been heavier than it is now—a result, in part, of the rise of more cable shows with literary aspirations and a TV marketplace that puts a premium on writers with original voices.

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The mysterious source, Some in the TV World,is never actually quoted. Nor does the Journal ever offer a census over the decades of playwrights who have become tele-playwrights. It merely names a bunch of playwrights working in television—Keith Huff, Warren Leight, Marsha Norman, Jon Robin Baitz, Tracy Letts, Lucy Prebble, in addition to Mamet and Rebeck—and presents shaky anecdotal evidence. For instance, the Journal finds it significant that the majority of writers working on HBO's In Treatment are playwrights, that AMC's Breaking Bademploys two playwrights, and that one-third of the 200 applicants for writing slots on a new FX network drama were playwrights. They were expecting maybe plumbers?

Would the Journal have run this bogus trend story had it spent two minutes on a Nexis search on the topic? The archives teem with similar stories about playwrights migrating to the electronic form. In 2007, Variety("TV Lures Moonlighting Playwrights") spotted a slew of playwrights writing for TV, including Baitz, Rebeck, and Leight, plus Adam Rapp, Craig Wright, Rolin Jones, and Eric Overmyer. In 2006, an Entertainment Weeklyarticle charted "a few of the dramatists who've traded the smell of the greasepaint for a steady paycheck." Listed were usual suspects Baitz, Rebeck, Leight, and Rapp as well as Paul Grellong, Diana Son, Craig Wright, David Marshall Grant, and Gina Gionfriddo.

In 2006, the Los Angeles Times hyped playwrights writing for the tube in a feature titled "From Theater to TV; It Cuts both Ways; Sure Your Audience Is Bigger, But Look Out: So Are the Pressures." Among the playwrights named: Mamet, Rebeck, Jones, Gionfriddo, Wright, Grant, Leight, Overmyer, plus Aaron Sorkin, Peter Parnell, Marlene Myer, Jacqueline Reingold, John Belluso, and David Rambo.

In 2003, the Boston Globe covered the topic nicely without the bogus trend hype. In the Globe's view, the recruitment of playwrights to TV is long-standing entertainment industry tradition. Its list of playwrights working for TV include Wright, Sorkin, Mamet, Rapp, as well as Alan Ball, Kate Robin, David Schulner, Stephen Adly Guirgis, Nancy Oliver, Rick Cleveland, and Alexandra Cunningham.

The New York Times noted the "steady flow of directors, producers, and playwrights out of the theater" and into TV in a 1996 piece that name-checks writers Rebeck and Matt Williams. In 1994, the Los Angeles Times made a big deal about playwright Lisa Loomer's work on sitcoms, and in 1993 the newspaper reported the observation of Maria Gobetti, the artistic co-director of the Victory Theater, that one-third of the writers introduced to the public by the theater in the last 12 years were now doing most of their writing for film and TV.

The New York Times' 1990 piece, "Television Commissions Works by Playwrights," reported that NBC and Turner had hired Horton Foote, George C. Wolfe, and Arthur Kopit to write for them. A similar theme informs the Times' 1989 article, "Playwrights Tread the Welcome Mat in Hollywood." Playwrights named include Richard Greenberg, Terrence McNally, Marsha Norman, Albert Innaurato, John Pielmeier, Michael Weller, Tina Howe, Jeffrey Sweet, and the previously mentioned Overmyer.

A Los Angeles Times piece from 1988, "Thriving in Hollywood: Playwrights Can Work in the Industry and Love it—Artistically and Financially," finds playwrights swarming Hollywood productions. (The piece reports the hiring of Jon Robin Baitz by HBO to write a screenplay—his first!) A Los Angeles Daily News article from 1987 calls Mamet, Christopher Durang, Wendy Wasserstein, Terry Curtis Fox, and Overmyer "some of the finest television writers in America." As proof that the Journal trend is no trend, I submit as evidence the Dec. 14, 1986, New York Times article "Playwrights See New Promise on the Small Screen." The article's playwrights in TV-land include Wasserstein, Mamet, Durang, Mart Crowley, Beth Henley, Paul Zindel, Bernard Slade, Andrew Bergman, and Charles Fuller.

Once you decant the hype from the Journal article, what's left? A half-interesting story! According to the Journal, TV seeks playwrights because they're good at writing dialogue-heavy scripts that can be filmed cheaply on one or two locations. These yakety-yak  productions are called "bottle episodes." Why on earth didn't the Journal make that the article's hook?

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Thanks to the observant reader who spotted the Journal article and Slate's Jenny Rogers. Seen a bogus trend story that needs busting? Send it to slate.pressbox@gmail.com. For low bogusity and good times follow my Twitter feed. (E-mail may be quoted by name in Slate's readers' forums; in a future article; or elsewhere unless the writer stipulates otherwise. Permanent disclosure: Slate is owned by the Washington Post Co.)

Track my errors: This hand-built RSS feed will ring every time Slate runs a "Press Box" correction. For e-mail notification of errors in this specific column, type the word playwright in the subject head of an e-mail message, and send it to slate.pressbox@gmail.com.

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Jack Shafer was Slate's editor at large. You can follow him on Twitter or email him at Shafer.Reuters@gmail.com.

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