Cliffnotes: Billion-Dollar Kiss: The Kiss That Saved Dawson’s Creek and Other Adventures in TV Writing

8 08 2009

Shortly after I read Beverly Hills, 90210: Television, Gender and Identity, I started a different book: Billion-Dollar Kiss: The Kiss That Saved Dawson’s Creek and Other Adventures in TV Writing by Jeffrey Stepakoff.

Like I put in my previous post, below is my initial correspondence with the author.  Unlike the last one, though, this one is much more inquisitive about Stepakoff’s role as an executive producer for Dawson’s Creek and other shows.

Dear Mr. Stepakoff,

Thanks so much for e-mailing me.  I was ecstatic that you replied so quickly, especially since I was unsure the message I left would actually reach you. I just finished reading your book Billion-Dollar Kiss: The Kiss That Saved Dawson’s Creek and Other Adventures in TV Writing this afternoon. I am a 20-year-old journalism major and film & media studies minor at Northwestern University’s The Medill School of Journalism with a television obsession. I’m currently interning at Soap Opera Digest and Soap Opera Weekly.

As my sophomore year wound down in June, I roamed Barnes and Noble—a frequent pastime.  On a promotional table, something Dawson’s Creek-related caught my eye.  It was your book.  I flipped through it, unfortunately unable to afford it at that time.  I added it to my ever-growing reading list and got around to it this past Sunday.  Your story fascinated me.  I have many comments and many questions.  I hope you’ll be willing to read through my novel of an e-mail and the attached documents.

The particular genre I dedicate countless hours of my life to is the teen drama.  This torrid love affair began with Beverly Hills, 90210.   90210 premiered when I was just three years old and I began watching it at the very adolescent age of nine, during the sixth season (I actually just finished reading Dr. E. Graham McKinley’s Beverly Hills 90210: Television, Vision and Identity).  I originally viewed Dawson’s Creek as the enemy, a ploy by the WB to usurp Fox’s viewers and bragging rights of having the hottest teen show on TV.  I was staunchly anti-Dawson’s Creek—that is, until 90210 ended and, eventually, the DC commercials drew me in.  Like with 90210, I didn’t start watching from the beginning but, in this case, half-way through the last season.  Still, I became hooked, obsessed—you name it.  I’ve since seen every episode countless times, as I’m sure you can imagine.  To read your account of how the Joey-Pacey romance was conjured up was such a thrill.  Forget Dawson—I was ALWAYS a P & J fan.  But, I’m not writing to gush.  I’m writing for some advice, to pick your brain.  First, I think it will be helpful to tell you more about myself.

While most of my college friends don’t bother to watch television, it takes up a great deal of my life.  When new episodes of One Tree Hill air (the only teen drama still “active”), I won’t go out.  I’ll sacrifice being with my friends.  While home for the summer, I’ve relished having SOAPNet, where each weekday I can watch six hours of 90210, One Tree Hill and The O.C.—all reruns.  I watch Dawson’s Creek every morning at 9AM on TBS (tomorrow’s ep is Stolen Kisses, where Joey and Pacey have their second and third kisses while on spring break).  If I have the choice to talk to a friend on the phone or go out or even take one of my beloved naps, I won’t.  The repeats are more important, repeats that I’ve seen thousands of times.  If I have nothing to do at night and I can go to bed, I won’t.  I’ll stay up til 1AM just so I can watch 90210 which airs certain nights at midnight.  And when I can’t watch—say, because of interning or something like that—I TiVo it and take something else out of my day so I can watch it before the next episode airs.  The affect these shows have on me is probably abnormal but still healthy. I can see it, and so can my friends, none of whom watch any of these shows.  I often have to explain why I won’t go out or why I won’t take their call.  Whereas some people turn to shopping or alcohol or a journal as their escape and release, I rely on the 60-minute shows.  They instantly make me happy.  And most of the time, getting that escape, that instant happiness is more important than anything else. My friends just don’t understand the connection I have to these shows.  When all else fails, I fall back on this defense: There are a lot worse habits I can have.  I don’t do drugs, I’m still in school and I haven’t murdered anyone.  Let being addicted to teen dramas be the worst thing I do.  Puts things in perspective, doesn’t it?

But my love of TV extends beyond the watching teen shows to keeping up with all the latest news in the industry.  During my childhood, each week I looked forward to the day TV Guide would be delivered to my grandmother, with whom I shared a home.  I would take each issue as it arrived and read all the glossy pages in the front which contained articles, briefs and tidbits on one of my greatest pleasures—television shows.  I’ve always been a television junkie, eager to know the behind-the-scenes happenings, cast info, and even plot spoilers. TV Guide’s Ausiello Report, E! Online’s Watch with Kristen and the Chicago Tribune’s The Watcher are among my favorite things to read.  My desire to be an entertainment journalist stems from my love of pop culture, keeping up with celebrities and the media, and, obviously, a big part of that for me is television. I’m well on my way to what I thought was my career goal but your book has re-lit the previously latent flame in me that burns for television writing.

Until I read your book I had never heard of a “spec script” nor did I know anything about the process of becoming a TV writer.  Turns out, by the definitions you provided, I’ve already written tons of spec scripts.  After 90210 show ended, I ran a role-playing-game (RPG site) where we wrote episodes continuing the show, thus deciding what happened to the characters.  I came up with storyline after storyline for the characters.  My writing can be accessed at http://www.angelfire.com/tv2/melrose90210rpg/, and though it was last updated in 2002, there are about 25 “episodes” (written in narrative form but separated by scenes) that detail the characters’ escapades. I wrote what believe were legitimate plots, ones I always fantasized would be turned into actual episodes or movies.

In addition, I’ve written a one-act play, and a short story that accompanies it.  Both are attached to this e-mail for your review, along with my résumé.  I send this to you for feedback, criticism and a helping hand.  I imagine you’re quite busy but I’m sure you can recall what it was like when you were starting out and just needed someone—anyone—to guide in the right direction.  I’ve heard rumors that there’s a Northwestern Mafia in Los Angeles, which I’m sure can one day provide assistance to me, too.  For right now, I’d like to start with you. I hope you’ll give me your time as well as your honest opinions and not “Hollywood speak.”

Interesting tangent: I met Greg Berlanti last year when he came to speak at Northwestern, his alma mater, about screenwriting.  I wore a homemade shirt, which I later gave to him.  On the front it said: Greg—I will ❤ you forEVER(WOOD) ~your #1 fan.  The back said: I cried a CREEK when Dawson’s ended.  It was funny that I wrote the “forEVER(WOOD)” part in my shirt long before knowing that would be the title of the series finale. After listening to him and the other panelists speak, I gave him the shirt as a memento.  A picture of us is also attached to this e-mail.

The next of my e-mail contains my comments and questions specifically provoked by your book.  They are mostly in the order of when they occurred to be me while reading (I sat with a paper and pen and made notes as I read).

Since I’m already on the path to a journalism career, as opposed to television production, I guess a middle-of-the-road job would be as a television critic.  Last year I took a class that focused on entertainment criticism and desperately tried to find my own voice.  Though I have strong opinions, I find it difficult to judge to things on behalf of the masses.  What gives me the right?  Who’s to say that I can discern what’s good from what’s crap?  For instance, I don’t like Jay-Z’s music and I’d be inclined to write a “bad” review—but that’s because I don’t like rap and hip-hop and not necessarily because it is in fact bad.  How do you stop your personal predilections from influencing your professional opinion?  How were you able to tell which scripts were good and which weren’t?

I find it very interesting that after majoring in journalism, you ended up with a career in television writing.  But, to your credit, you also received a masters in playwrighting. I will not be getting a masters in anything—it’s not in the financial cards for me.  So, I have to ask, how much does having the “right” credentials matter?  Will a journalism degree, as opposed to one in creative writing or scriptwriting or something like that, make it harder to break into the business and find success? How much of what you studied in college apply to your later career in Hollywood?  In regards to how the industry works, how much did you learn from experience and how much did you know to begin with?  I pride myself on knowing more than the average viewer but a lot of the concepts you wrote about (the different seasons in L.A., for example) were brand new to me. Also, in regards to breaking into the business (or even staying in it) how essential is it to live in Los Angeles or even in California?  I know you currently reside in Georgia—is that because you’ve “retired” from the industry?

Do you actively watch the shows you write for, when the episode airs?  Do you now watch DC in syndication?  What did you like about it that made you such a fan prior to joining the staff?

Despite all your helpful explanations, I still feel confused as to what a producer’s job exactly is.  Like, on page 273, when talking about the filming of episode 3.12, you said you sat down and “produced” it.  But what exactly does that mean? What is a producer responsible for?  How does it differ from writing the scripts?

Like your younger self, I also didn’t understand what story editor meant.  I assumed it meant literally editing the film together, something I knew I didn’t want to be a part of.  After trying my hand at the mechanics of broadcast journalism, I realized I didn’t like production that much.  But a story editor, as in writing the story, editing it and putting together the final script—that I would love to do. But I struggle with editing my own work and having others edit it.  I get very attached to my original words and have a hard time cutting things out or accepting suggestions.  Do you have any tips for getting past that?

Is it that, in the 90s and early 2000s, minorities weren’t hired or minorities weren’t applying?  Perhaps the whiteness of a writing team was a function of both?

And here I thought doctors made a lot.  Several times you said writers fought for more money not for money’s sake but out of respect.  But how do you justify such a ridiculously high salary?  You’re providing entertainment—a valued commodity, no doubt—but teachers are forced to make due on well under $100,000.  I look at athletes and their million-dollar contracts and feel outraged.  It’s one of the things that bother me most about American culture and society.  Along those lines, it was very shocking to find out that fired writers, producers, etc. still get paid for episodes they did not work on.  A contract is a contract, that I understand, and severance packages are quite common, but it’s also hard to justify someone making hundreds of thousands of dollars for something they did not do.  Doesn’t it make it easier, then, for those in the business to be less concerned with quality, knowing they’ll still be paid even if they’re fired? On the flipside, when the credit is deserved, I was happy to find out writers were paid residuals for characters they introduced, etc.  I just never expected the amounts to be so much!   I knew million-dollar deals were being made (i.e. the Friends cast making a million dollars per episode) but it still never occurred to me television was a billion dollar industry.  I never connected the dots. I guess the problem is I really can’t fathom that much money.  If the industry made $8 billion in 2000, what is it making today?

I never knew independent studios existed.  I guess that’s because by the time I was the age to really pay attention, most of these companies had dissolved, so it made sense I would only hear about the networks. As a journalist, the incestuous and biased web you implied about NBC being owned by GE, which sells weapons to the Pentagon, is particularly frightening.  But as far as I can see, it is imperative to the way our economy works and succeeds that that web not be untangled.  Sad but true.

I have to wonder about the accuracy of the Nielsen ratings.  Though I admit I don’t thoroughly understanding how the system works, reports of its bias do catch my eye. Nielsen doesn’t account for how many individual people are watching, like in the case of High School Music 2 where its extraordinary ratings were probably underestimated due to group viewing parties and the like.  Does TiVoing for later viewing also lower a show’s ratings?

As a fan of Dawson’s Creek, I must admit those pages were among the most intriguing for me. It is especially appealing to read about the behind-the-scenes work that went into making the finished product I saw on TV.  It’s also interesting to read what you thought of the shows. Some thoughts:

· RE: your criticism of season 2—I particularly love some of those eps, like “Sex, She Wrote,” as well as the episodes when Jack reveals his true sexual orientation, Abby Morgan’s death and Joey’s tearful wire-recording of her father.  I wasn’t necessarily looking for realistic stories. I was looking for drama.  In all the teen soaps I watched, that’s what drew me in.

· Not sure I understand why the ending of season 2 painted you into a quarter.  It’s interesting to read how poorly the show was doing around then, something I was unaware of since I only saw those episodes in syndication.

· I hated the Eve storyline, too.  It was funny to hear it referenced, disparagingly, in the penultimate episode of the series.

· You’re right in assessing The Longest Day and Downtown Crossing as beloved by viewers.

· It was nice to read your mention of Dawson’s Creek, a site I frequented as I watched a lot of the episodes for the first time in syndication.

It was really gratifying to find out that Greg was the driving force between my favorite DC storyline ever, the one that hooked me—Joey and Pacey’s relationship.  It was surprising to find out when in the season that storyline was actually developed by the writers.  Looking back on it, I see foreshadowing beginning in the season 3 opener (Pacey suggests to Joey, while comforting her, that they might become closer) and steadily increasing in episodes like “Four to Tango.”  Maybe episode 3.12 was the first time Pacey himself acknowledged his feelings for Pacey, but I saw it coming from the get-go of that season.  Then again, that’s probably just hindsight.  My heart melted just at the image your one-line description of the episode brought to mind—Pacey watching Joey sleep.  And when you cited Grams’ line (“Love is the hardest of woods”) I could hear it in my head as if she were now whispering it into my ear.  That’s how ingrained into my brain the scenes, images and dialogues of the show are.  Out of curiosity, out of all the episodes you wrote, why did you choose to highlight episode 3.12?

I appreciated knowing that Gina Fattore took it upon herself to be the show’s historian.  I easily fill that role with all the teen dramas I watch.  I assure you no trivia question will stump me, something that can come in handy (I hate when new writers don’t know a character’s backstory!).

It was weird to read stories about Greg Prange, Gina Fattore, names I recognize from seeing flash again and again on my TV screen.  Ironically, I don’t remember seeing your name.  Go figure.

If so many people come up with the story and write and shape the script, why are only one or two people given the “written by” credit as the show opens?  What is required for someone to earn the “written by” or the “story by” credit?

I see the difficulty in developing a season’s worth of episode ideas.  Just looking at things I’ve written, I have no idea how I’d expand them with other storylines.  On the other hand, though, with my 90210 RPG, I essentially did come up with storyline after storyline, all I believed (both as a fan and as a writer) were plausible and, well, good.  It’s interesting that in that sense, at thirteen years old, I was already doing what you do for your career.  My love of doing that, and the emptiness I have felt since stopping, shows me that I do have the want and the need to be in a room with people for 16 hours dreaming up storylines.  I would kill to be a fly on the wall for one day in The Room, and I’d do even more to one day be a participant in the process.  I’ve seen one show filmed—an episode of the sitcom Hope & Faith—and loved what I saw.  I would love to witness that day in and day out, as well.

In your heart of hearts, for you personally, which is more important: critical acclaim or ratings?  Everwood, for example, was a favorite show of mine that was critically acclaimed but didn’t have the ratings it needed to survive the WB/UPN merger (even with a fan campaign to save the show).

What exactly is scriptwriting software?  What does it allow you to do?

Does the 2007-2008 TV schedule contain a significant rise in scripted shows, or does it just seem that way to me?  Granted, many of them will be canceled, I definitely did not notice as many reality shows as in previous years.  What do you like to watch for pure entertainment pleasure?  What new shows are you looking forward to? Whereas experience was the valued commodity following the reality TV boom, what do you think it is today?  What part of the cycle do you think television is in today?  What do you think will be the impact of iPods, etc. on writers’ contracts?  Stupidly, the effects of the digital age didn’t occur to me until you brought them up.

When you gave me your e-mail address, I bet you never expected a reply this long.  I’m sorry to take up so much of your time. Please only answer what you can.

Best wishes,

Shari Weiss

The other teen drama book I have listed on my products page, Dawson’s Creek: A Critical Understanding, I haven’t had a chance to read yet. Also listed is Season Finale: The Unexpected Rise and Fall of The WB and UPN, which is–as the title suggests–about the founding and disbanding of those networks.  It has a few pages on Dawson’s Creek.  It may briefly mention One Tree Hill as well but I can’t recall specifically.  I was unable to get in touch with the author.

Are there any books about teen dramas you’ve read?

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3 responses

8 08 2009
Alyssa

This was the book that unfortunately I didn’t get the chance to finish. I could still recall much of what you referenced from the book. I found a lot of excitment in learning how the story writing process develops. Having it explained through the history of my favorite tevelvision series was the greatest benefit.

30 03 2010
Lexy

After reading this…I am basically the 18 year old version of you. Minus the journalism major and extra cool job of course.

5 10 2012
Courtney

Did he ever respond to you?

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