A couple of weeks ago, I received a notification that I’m entitled to apply for my chunk of a settlement in a class action suit. It seems a whole whack of TV networks and agencies have agreed to pay out $70 million in a settlement to writers over 40 who have written for TV or wanted to. You can read more about it here. I don’t qualify to apply (I’m under 40 and never had much interest in writing for TV) so I’m assuming they just sent this to every name they could get from the Writers Guild.
The settled case, Edwards, et al v. International Creative Management, Inc. (ICM), alleged that the more than 150 named plaintiffs and others like them — television writers who were aged 40 and older after October 22, 1996 — were victims of systematic age discrimination by talent agents, who aided and abetted networks and studios by refusing to represent and refer older writers for work at the production studios. In the 11 cases against the networks and studios, plaintiffs allege systemic failure to hire older TV writers.
By settling out of court, the networks have neatly sidestepped the possibility of a ruling against them. That ruling would set precedent: anyone suing the networks for other forms of discrimination could argue that they were found to be engaging in ageism, so why not other -isms? By settling, they’ve also avoided bringing the full wrath of the Writers Guild down on them. It’s one thing to privately sue employers for discrimination – the burden of proof is totally on you – but when you’re backed by a Guild that has strict policies about hiring and all that good stuff, the burden of proof practically shifts to the defendant. It looks like the networks didn’t feel they could convince a judge they hired fairly.
Which sounds about right. I’ve heard stories of network TV shows refusing to hire women to direct on the basis that they lack experience or lack the right kind of experience (for example, cable experience but not network) – even though the Directors Guild can impose fines for this. Meanwhile, young white men seem to have no problem magically accruing the right experience to move up the ladder – even with mere cable experience. Patterns like this are all-too-familiar in stories of women breaking into male-dominated professions: women do exactly what they see the men around them doing to progress in their profession, but it doesn’t yield the same result for them. Now, why would that be?
Not only is age discrimination an illegal practice, but in this case, it deprives TV viewers of the rich life experiences that are brought to the table by writers who are experienced at their craft and posses first-hand knowledge of events that younger writers do not and must research. Often, important elements get lost in that process.
It’s not just events younger writers haven’t experienced. Age teaches you, for example, that even the luckiest human being around is incredibly fragile, and strength doesn’t come from power or control, but simply a refusal to give into fear. These life lessons enable you to write the sort of enduringly memorable characters that even formulaic action shows require in order to stay on the air for more than a couple of seasons.