Tuned In: CMU grad's book tells why prime-time TV is what it is

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In the new book "Billion-Dollar Kiss: The Kiss that Saved 'Dawson's Creek' and Other Adventures in TV Writing" (Gotham Books, $27), TV scribe Jeffrey Stepakoff takes readers inside the sausage factory that is prime-time TV production.

"Billion-Dollar Kiss" by Carnegie Mellon University alumnus Jeffrey Stepakoff explores how prime-time television shows are produced.
Click photo for larger image.

People love to complain about TV, but rarely do they take the time to understand why it is the way it is. "Billion-Dollar Kiss" fills in the blanks. Think of it as your assigned summer reading for Media Literacy 101.

Stepakoff, who received a master's in playwriting from Carnegie Mellon University, wrote for "Major Dad," "The Wonder Years," "C-16," "Hyperion Bay" and "Dawson's Creek" before leaving Hollywood in 2004. The book's title refers to writer/producer Greg Berlanti's suggestion in the "Dawson's Creek" writer's room that Joey (Katie Holmes) and Pacey (Joshua Jackson) get together romantically, a much-needed plot driver that allowed the series to last six seasons. That's just one example of the insider's point of view Stepakoff offers.

"Kiss" chronicles the history of television writing, particularly since Steven Bochco invented the serialized, character-driven quality drama with "Hill Street Blues" in the 1980s. It explains the notion of "momentum" and how important that is to getting ahead in the TV industry. "Kiss" shows how TV writers have gained clout (and vast sums of wealth) over the years. The book depicts life in a writer's room, where stories are developed by committee and explains why diversity is so hard to come by on many writing staffs (it's not overt racism; producers just tend to hire people they already know, people who generally share their skin color).

Stepakoff also shows that being a writer for a TV show is about more than writing, something we also discussed by phone recently.

"What people don't seem able to get their heads around is that when you're a writer you are a TV producer really," he said. "Even as a baby writer, you have a real sway over not just what the actors will be saying, but how they'll say it."

In the book, Stepakoff, 43, describes flying from Los Angeles, where the "Dawson's" writers worked, to Wilmington, N.C., where the series was filmed, and the job of putting out fires on the set, managing actor's requests, etc.

"People can be taught the writing craft and everybody has a great story to tell," Stepakoff said. "To have a career as a television writer you need not just the ability to write, not just an ability to know how to take a vision and put it down on the page -- it's also about management. Getting along with people. Sitting in a room and working collectively with other writers for a long period of time and an ability to have good ideas on a regular basis."

In "Kiss," Stepakoff also looks at past labor turmoil and a writer's strike that may happen this fall that would bring the production of scripted television to a halt (if that happens, expect a lot more reality TV).

"I'm not sure everyone realizes what a watershed moment television is at right now," Stepakoff said by phone. "There's a remarkable confluence of events and situations taking place."

The Writer's Guild of America-West is seeking greater compensation, including profit participation in TV shows sold online.

"We really want a piece of an industry no one can seem to valuate, this digital delivery system," Stepakoff said. "Everyone agrees network television is waning and digital delivery is the future, but it gets into complicated issues."

Can networks make enough money on digital downloads to stay in business? Should reality show "story editors" be counted as writers since their editing actually shapes a story the way a writer would?

Prime-time network ratings are already down, a strike would be "catastrophic" and would do far more damage to the TV business than the 1988 strike did, Stepakoff said.

"Kiss" gives readers who love TV much to consider. Its biggest deficiency is in exploring the impact of working in television on the author's life away from work. Stepakoff is somewhat cagey about his relationships (he identifies a former girlfriend as the co-creator of "Dharma & Greg," which is easy enough to look up at http://IMDB.com, but he never names her) and he offers only general platitudes about why he's no longer writing for TV.

"Billion-Dollar Kiss" is not the definitive book on the life of a TV writer, but it does offer the most complete exploration of the business of TV writing that I've ever encountered.

Upfronts next week

The five broadcast networks will announce their fall schedules next week, and I'll report the results in the next day's paper. But if you can't wait that long to find out if your favorite show has been renewed or canceled, I'll post the network press releases as soon as I receive them in Tuned In Journal at post-gazette.com/tv.

NBC announces Monday, followed by ABC on Tuesday, CBS on Wednesday and Fox and The CW on Thursday.

'Drive' episodes scheduled

The last two produced episodes of Fox's canceled "Drive" will air in prime-time on July 4, 8 to 10 p.m. Don't expect any closure: These are just episodes five and six, and executive producer Tim Minear said the race wouldn't even reach the finish line by episode No. 13.

Channel surfing

NBC News has named Lester Holt to be anchor of the weekend editions of "NBC Nightly News," replacing John Siegenthaler, whose contract was not renewed. ... James Caan will return for the season premiere of "Las Vegas' in the fall, and then Tom Selleck will join the series as the new owner of the Montecito Resort & Casino. ... CMT will begin rerunning "Dukes of Hazzard" for the last time at 8 p.m. May 28. After that, the show's reruns will no longer be carried by CMT. ... That $10 million sale of "Dukes" car the General Lee on Ebay? Not happening. Turns out the bidder missed the deposit deadline, according to http://TMZ.com. ... NBC yanked "The Real Wedding Crashers" from its scheduled after this week's low-rated episode.

WQED re-schedules shows

Two programs disrupted last month on WQED by technical snafus have been rescheduled. "Fat: What No One is Telling You" will re-air at 3 p.m. July 22 and "Wayfarer's Journey: Listening to Mahler" is tentatively scheduled for 3 p.m. July 29.

TV Q&A

This week's TV Q&A responds to questions about networks yanking shows, excessive Steelers coverage in local newscasts, and Marty Griffin. Read it online at post-gazette.com/tv.


TV editor Rob Owen can be reached at rowen@post-gazette.com or 412-263-2582.


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