TBI Weekly: As WGA strike hits, don’t neglect the script in ‘unscripted’

Surviving Earth

As the long-anticipated US writers’ strike gets underway, Walking With Dinosaurs creator Tim Haines, founder and creative director at UK indie Loud Minds, reminds us that there’s still a script in ‘unscripted’ programming.

After months of back and forth, the writers’ strike has finally begun in the US. I have followed press reports on the grievances, negotiations and the likely wide-ranging impact, and in doing so, one thing has really hit me. In amongst the talk of all the great drama series that will go on hold or even disappear stateside – with a sidebar around the increased opportunities for scripted content from other territories – the talk seems exclusively about one type of writer.

So, do writers in TV only write drama?

The answer, of course, is no – even in Hollywood. I’ve been equally bemused when I’ve read that perhaps unscripted programming can help fill any resulting gaps in network schedules. The inference here, I assume, is that none of these shows use scripts…!

As someone who has always recognised the power of the written word – starting life as a journalist, then a copywriter before moving into factual television, and subsequently into drama – I believe it’s vitally important to recognise and appreciate the contribution of writers in all sectors of television.

Every production I’ve ever been involved with – from dramas such as Primeval to factual shows like Walking With Dinosaurs or our latest series, Surviving Earth, has started with a great script

So why is it that TV writers only ever seem to get lauded if they create fiction, work on book adaptations or deliver cracking dialogue for actors? Perhaps our broad-brush way of classifying all TV into “scripted” and “unscripted” – with everything other than drama shoe-horned into the latter – may have something to do with it.

While I appreciate it can prove a useful shorthand, such legacy categorisation is lazy, inaccurate and most of all unfair on the thousands of great writers who don’t work on dramas. Every production I’ve ever been involved with – from dramas such as Primeval to factual shows like Walking With Dinosaurs or our latest series, Surviving Earth, has started with a great script.

TV shows can hoodwink the viewer, but within the industry, we are only too aware that even most of our reality series are scripted and that some of our most popular presenters – from Jeremy Clarkson to Graham Norton – rarely leave their bon mots and on-screen wisdom to chance. They work with scriptwriters who not only can capture their voices but also appreciate that the on-screen Jeremys and Grahams are also playing a character – even if only a heightened version of themselves. Smart scripts from clever writers help to keep presenters on message and at the top of their game.

Tim Haines

Another key part of the drama writer’s skill is good storytelling, but this is also vital in so many TV genres. It has driven the recent success of true crime. Think about some of the genre’s most successful series of recent years, such as The Jinx, The Staircase or The Devil Next Door. Each story is constructed in a different way, never really playing out in an obvious linear fashion. Instead, the facts are fed to us selectively by good storytellers, to create the most compelling narrative and keep us on tenterhooks – even when we might already know the outcome.

As Loud Minds is now developing a number of true crime ideas, I am currently enjoying the creative challenge that comes with having to use known facts but deciding when and how to reveal them to amplify the story into something truly mesmerising.

With the TV industry faltering in Hollywood, its ripples will hit everyone in the international market, so I’m hopeful that things soon get resolved and that writers in every sector feel justly supported and appreciated. However, the timing is interesting. This current ‘Golden Age’ of drama, which has helped perpetuate the demand for “scripted” writers, is starting to tarnish, with spiralling costs, subscription flipping and media consolidation having an impact. If the strike endures, the world could look a little different down the line.

We are already seeing an increase in localised formats, and I think that big factual programmes with universal stories and international appeal will be the next ‘must haves’. Maybe now is the time to not only reflect on the importance of good writers in elevating all content but to also banish the outdated scripted vs unscripted categorisation and encourage drama writers to step outside their silo and try their hand in other areas, genres where brilliant storytelling is absolutely paramount and the spoken word, whether delivered as commentary, presentation or narration, still has the power to engage, move and entertain.

 

Tim Haines is founder and creative director at Loud Minds, a company he recently established to make high-end factual and drama productions for international audiences. His previous credits include Walking With Dinosaurs and its sequel Walking with Beasts. He established Impossible Pictures in 2002, where he was behind shows such as Prehistoric Park, Primeval and Sinbad.

Tags: Loud Minds

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