Story Work: Non-proprietary Autonomy and Contemporary Television Writing


Writers frequently insist that they are the true authors of television, and that they rather than executives endow television with whatever “quality” it might have. Their claims offer two different accounts of value. One insists that while management generates profits from the hard work of its employees, it adds no real economic value. The second insists that writers alone create a project’s aesthetic value; they produce better work when left alone to do what they do best. Writers often affiliate with labor, as the all source of economic value, to render more secure their claim to the aesthetic approbation, or prestige, now attached to television. However much writers support the efforts of the Writers Guild of America (WGA) to fight for better conditions for writers, in other words, their persistent identification with labor also pays a different kind of dividend: in asserting their antagonism toward studio and network creative control, writers assert their autonomy and, therefore, their claim to respect as true authors of a creative medium worthy of respect, even though writers neither own the copyrights in their work nor control the uses made of their writing. Identifying with labor, in short, allows writers to set themselves against corporate interference in the name of art. The beliefs about labor invoked by the 32 working television writers whom we interviewed for this article therefore possess a significant plasticity. Writers are labor in a way that sets them apart from management, even as they acknowledge their difference from others within the industry who have stronger claims to being labor. Writers are labor, in legal terms, because their employers possess the contractual right to demand revisions of their work. Although that right signals writers’ subservience to network and studio and their lack of autonomy as employees, it also makes available a longstanding and venerable antagonism between labor and management, which serves as the basis of the writer’s literary autonomy.

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