Yay for Schmucks with Underwoods!

03/30/2010 05:12 am ET | Updated May 25, 2011
  • Sara Davidson Author of "The December Project," "Loose Change" and "Joan: Forty Years of Life, Loss and Friendship with Joan Didion."

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.

To receive future blogs by Sara Davidson, click here.