By Jeffrey Stepakoff
In shops Tuesday, 8 May 2007
There are many insider books out there about the world of filmmaking. TV, not so much. So when I saw “Billion-Dollar Kiss” in the pile of toys that had come in the door, I was instantly intrigued. This is not, in fact, a book about one episode of one show, or a few episodes that pumped up the ratings during sweeps. What Stepakoff has done here is not a doctoral thesis that would only appeal to a tiny sect of the population. He has given us the history of television from the mid-80’s to the present, and taken us behind the deals, the trends, and the ever-changing network and studio systems that create some of the most beloved programs of his generation and into the next. He writes about the overnight success of many a TV writer: “…one day you’re cranking out a spec in the Starbucks on Third Street wondering how much longer you can keep writing all day without having to start working behind the counter, and the next day you’re putting a Warner Brothers parking sticker on the window of your new Saab and talking to realtors in Marina del Rey.”
It is in fact, a quirky and uncertain industry, and one that can prove quite lucrative as rates are guaranteed through the Writer’s Guild, even when writers and showrunners leave a show because the staff changes or the show goes off the air. The money still flows in for the writers, who rarely get the mainstream recognition they deserve from the millions of viewers who support their work. Sure, the book is filled with industry jargon about ratings, development deals and the like, but Stepakoff, as our guide, introduces each stage of the writing process to his readers so we can become a veritable insider, and perhaps have a better grasp on articles we may stumble upon in the trades. Like many careers in entertainment, he points out that “even in the best of years, part of the job in a television writing career is writing and part of the job is getting your next job.” Throughout the pages of the book, you will see the (very fast) rise and fall of several shows as they buckle under low ratings and sometimes jump the shark.
He also points out that after more mergers and acquisitions than anyone can track, most of what we see on television, online, in print and at the cinema comes from such a short list of conglomerates that you can count them off on one hand. He asks: “…should GE, owner of NBC, a company that was the third-largest producer of nuclear weapons and still sells military hardware to the Pentagon, really be reporting the news?” With observations like that, who knows if he will be asked to work for the Peacock anytime in the near future. What he has done though, is open the door to a complicated and fascinating industry so that we can be a fly on the wall and see how it all happens. You’ll never look at television in quite the same way after reading this one.