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It’s different in a couple of major ways. One, of course, is that back then it was all a story. Each week was a different story. They were the same characters but they got into different situations. Today, there is a lot of episodic soap continuing stories. That’s why they staff most shows now, because the staff can all be involved in writing. They know how to make the characters move through many different situations. They can look at it all together. Back then, everyone was a freelance writer and that’s a major difference in television writing today. It’s the reason why I wrote more episodes of different shows than any other writer in Hollywood. I was writing furiously and I was also able to adapt to all of these different genres. We were freelance. Today, writers are pretty much attached to a series until it fails or goes off the air. They then go to another show and stay there for a while. They write mostly for their show, so my experience and background are much more varied than most of the writers today.
Answer from Joel Rogosin, Writer, Producer & Director, Magnum, P.I..
When I started in television, I was the youngest producer in town. Now, if you were that age, you’d be running studios. I was 28 in the 60s and the routine was 39 shows and 13 reruns. There were very few entrepreneurs; the shows were generated mostly by the studios and were mostly run by a producer, maybe an assistant producer/story editor, a secretary and an assistant producer. Period. We did 39 hours a season, every season. Virtually alone, I did 39 episodes of Sunset Strip and there wasn’t a huge staff of writers at all. Most of the producers were writers.
The whole producing concept is very much misunderstood, I think, even today. There are entrepreneurial producers who create their own shows and run them, there are producers who work for hire and there are line producers, who are basically production managers but have producer credit (which they are able to negotiate for). In those days, there were very small production units and very simplistic shows. The budget for shows like Sunset Strip was about $70,000 for black and white shows out the door. Finished. If you went over $5,000 or so, you were in deep trouble (now, of course, an episode is millions of dollars). Because of the way the shows were set up and the way the industry was set up, there was a huge market for freelance writers. As I said, teams of writers didn’t staff the shows like they do now, so the freelance writing market was how you broke into the industry. And (usually) if you wrote fairly well for a given series, you were re-hired. If the show really ran, you would wind up being on a staff. The freelance market virtually is non-existent now because all the shows, as you’ll tell from the credits, have teams of writers. They don’t all have writing credit – sometimes they say “executive producer,” “associate producer,” “coordinating producer,” “and consulting producer.” Those are all writers who usually negotiate for credit for a little more money and a little more prestige.