Writers: Not Keeping Up

Writers: Not Keeping Up

During this “peak TV” era, when more television is being produced than ever, and when everyone who works in television is finding a sellers’ market for their skills, why is the average TV writer seeing their income go down?

There are five critical parts to the answer:

  1. The number of episodes, and therefore, episode fees are half the traditional number on many series.
  2. These fewer episode fees are being amortized across more than two weeks per episode.
  3. Writers are held exclusive and under option even when not working on these short season series.
  4. Residuals are too low in the emerging rerun markets.
  5. Script fees remain unequal to the network rates for the growing areas of the industry.

We will look at each of these, in turn.

First, Peak TV is great creatively. The short season—10 to 13 episodes—that has come to predominate offers the luxury of tight story arcs. But, with the per-episode payment structure for TV writers, it pays for only half of a traditional full season, even though it usually takes the writer off the market for a full year.

To make this underpayment worse, these short season series take advantage of the looser calendar to do more writing before production starts, take more days to shoot each episode, and spend more time in post. Writers can find themselves working a span of more than three weeks per episode. In this model everyone else on the production gets additional pay for the additional time, except writers.

The traditional TV calendar equated each episode fee with two weeks of work and an experienced writer’s deal was often overscale. By having this episode fee spread over three weeks the deal has now been driven down to Guild minimum. The writer is no longer being paid for experience, and any writer-producer can find him or herself earning the same as a story editor.

As a result, writer-producers at all levels of experience have seen their compensation for a year of working on a series drop, at the median, between 8% and 26%. Even showrunners not on overall deals have seen their compensation drop 21%.

What’s more, after the season is over, most writers find themselves held exclusive and under option for the next season. Sometimes these holds last a year, because some of these short-season series don’t have a firm air date when produced and the second season writing room can open more than a year after the first season room closed. After earning a half a season’s salary at minimum, writers can find themselves both losing health coverage and unable to pay the bills.

Residuals used to help. The network residual was a staple of TV writing for decades, but now fewer than half of network episodes are repeated on the network. The studios are monetizing them at greater than network revenue by selling episodes to subscription VOD services such as Netflix, Amazon and Hulu, and by putting them on ad-supported VOD services such as cable VOD, on the network’s own Apple TV app and website and on Yahoo. But the SVOD and AVOD residuals are a small fraction of the network residual, even combined.

And, finally, the fee for each script is inferior to the network standard, even though it’s just as many pages and the series are as compelling creatively and as complex structurally. Today, there is no reason scripts for the CW, basic cable and SVOD ought to be cheaper than network scripts.

The cumulative effect of these factors is that in a time of unprecedented demand, TV writers are, illogically, earning less.