'Murder She Wrote,' 'Hart to Hart' Writers Find New Life in China

Courtesy Everett Collection
"Murder, She Wrote"

Shut out of jobs in the U.S., these older writers are part of a new effort to transfer skills to a booming market with tastes like America in the 1970s and '80s.

This story first appeared in the Dec. 6 issue of The Hollywood Reporter magazine.

Forget Breaking Bad or Game of Thrones. When China thinks of America's Golden Age of Television, it could soon look to The Mary Tyler Moore Show or Kojak. The writers who created those series are part of a new effort to bring older and underemployed scribes to booming China.

E! Entertainment co-founder Larry Namer, CEO of Chinese production company Metan, is behind Metan Wen Zhi Ku ("Writing Mastermind"), a collective that has organized about 2,000 older writers to create content for the country. "While China's media business is developing at a rapid pace, core skills of storytelling are lacking," Namer tells THR. "We believe Metan Wen Zhi Ku will fill this void."

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Namer has teamed with Art Eisenson and David Gittins, who head a group of writers who have penned such hits as Miami Vice, Hart to Hart and Murder, She Wrote. While TV scripts often sell for just a few thousand dollars in China, for many of these talents it's a chance to reinvent their careers in the developing market. "This allows older writers to get their mojo back," says Eisenson. "We understand television."

Strict censorship rules mean edgy urban tales of corruption or erotically charged thrillers don't make it to the small screen in China, but the country's media watchdogs are just fine with the more innocent themes of, say, The Golden Girls. Although U.S. shows from the 1970s and '80s do not play in China and are not widely known, their themes resonate among China's new breed of content-hungry TV executives. "The parameters for Chinese television are very similar to what my generation did in network television back in the '70s and '80s," notes Eisenson.

Many of those recruited for Metan Wen Zhi Ku were part of a $70 million settlement in 2010 of a class-action lawsuit brought by 165 TV scribes who alleged they were shut out because of their age. That they could be getting a new life in a market poised to overtake the U.S. in the next decade is particularly alluring. "Our writers went from being marginalized to being entirely appropriate for the largest market in the world. It is a lovely, ironic consequence," says Eisenson.

Metan Wen Zhi Ku's first project is a romantic-comedy series for the web that will be set in China, Europe and South America. The writers, many of whom are Emmy and Oscar winners and range in age from their mid-40s up to their 70s, include Marilyn Anderson, who worked on Murphy Brown, The Jeffersons and Fame; Michael Elias, a writer on The Jerk, Head of the Class and The Bill Cosby Show; and Eric Estrin from Cagney & Lacey, Miami Vice and Murder, She Wrote.

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Most of the writers won't actually travel to China, but Namer spends large parts of the year there and is confident he can leverage his access to the market into deals for the venture.

After China, the company plans to expand to India, Brazil and Russia, among other territories. The U.S. writers also will be involved in mentoring and teaching foreign content-creators, helping them develop skills, much like the informal apprenticeships in American TV writers rooms.

And much like the rest of China's entertainment industry, the quality of the TV writing could advance very quickly. Predicts Eisenson, "The shows that came on in the '70s, '80s and '90s are going to work in China."