“Australian TV is sadly bereft of opportunities for writers”: Nick Watson on writing for TV
It’s an age-old problem for Australian creatives: do I stay here or go overseas? Musicians and actors are the more visible creative expats, but writers are susceptible to chasing the industry too, especially when it comes to television and film. We talked to television writer Nick Watson to find out.
“Australian TV is sadly bereft of opportunities for writers, particularly for emerging ones looking to get their start,” Watson says. Having studied creative writing at uni and then a Masters of Screenwriting at the VCA, Watson wrote for a late-night show and freelanced for sitcoms in Australia. But now he finds himself in America — more specifically, L.A., where, as Bojack Horseman and Angel taught me, film and television lives.
There are a lot of Australian actors in L.A., but interestingly, Watson hasn’t met many other Australian writers. “I think most probably find it tricky to get the visas to come here, or don’t know how,” Watson opines. This is one of the motivations behind his podcast, Paperteam, co-hosted by Alex Freedman, who moved to the US from France. The podcast is for people trying to break into the industry as writers “from the ground up”.
“Funnily enough, for most of my life, the U.S. was never somewhere I was particularly interested in living,” Watson adds. He actually moved first to Vancouver, in Canada, for a year, but the industry there is mostly physical production: crews and on-set work. “There’s no writers’ rooms or any of the business side like agencies, studios and networks, so it’s almost impossible to make a living as a writer there.” The move to L.A. was one of necessity, but he’s grown to like it. “I realised it’s much nicer than I gave it credit for…which is just as well, as I don’t really have the option to live anywhere else if I want to make it as a TV writer.”
Watson is on the writer staffing lists at Cartoon Network, Adult Swim and Comedy Central, which functions something like a shortlist for new shows or when existing shows need new writers. He works mostly in animated TV, which differs from live-action television shows in the U.S. — instead of working together in a room 10am to 6pm, five days a week for 20 weeks, he’ll be assigned freelance outlines or episodes to work on in his own time.
“Right now I’m writing for an animated TV show (I’m not allowed to say which one yet) for Hasbro Studios,” Watson says. But like most writers, he has quite a few projects on the go: some will be used as samples to get him more work, and he might try to get some of them made. “One of my favourites is called Mr. Doom: it’s an animated sitcom about a divorced dad who has to juggle fatherhood with his dual life as a supervillain.” There’s a pilot with his writing partner about the four horsewomen of the apocalypse, Horsewomen, and a feature about a fictionalised version of a senile Walt Disney who recruits a bunch of teenagers to help keep his theme park afloat.
I tend to avoid Australian free-to-air television, with the exception of The Bachelor. But in recent years, there have been some great Australian shows, including Glitch, Please Like Me and The Family Law. “Australian TV as a medium has long been hindered by the structure of the industry behind the scenes,” Watson says, which is why show writing in Australia can be so difficult, especially for newcomers. “The US runs on a ‘showrunner’ model, which means the head writer is also the head producer…which means the integrity of their creative vision tends to stay intact.” In comparison, in the Australian industry, non-writing producers run the show, rather than “accommodating the creative vision of the writers. And in that power structure, the writers don’t have a choice.”
“A few Australian shows have begun to adopt the showrunner model,” Watson mentions, and it’s true that the shows I mentioned — with the obvious exception of The Bachelor, indeed have their creators and head writers heavily involved.
But on top of the showrunner issue and the long-running ‘cultural cringe’ factor is the simple fact that Australia has a relatively small population compared to the global market. “If our shows want to succeed, they have to have international appeal — and there have been some great breakout hits, like Wilfred, Summer Heights High and Please Like Me that have done just that. But I feel that too many shows, and particularly films in Australia, are caught up with being overtly ‘Australian’, because that’s what the government’s funding demands rather than just focusing on telling a good story that could work anywhere. And so we’re limiting ourselves unnecessarily.”
Find Nick and Alex’s podcast at www.paperteam.co.