TV Writer Pay

Losing Ground

Writers are the creative heart of television and are ultimately responsible for the most important assets in the business, yet they have been left behind.

In 1999, a writer with the title of Producer on a half-hour network comedy in its first season made $15,000 per episode. Adjusted for inflation the fee would be more than $23,400 today.

But in the WGA’s survey of TV writers from the 2017-18 season, the median episodic fee for a writer at the Producer level was only $16,000 per episode.

In 2000, a Supervising Producer on a one-hour network drama in its first season made $17,500 per episode. That would be $27,300 in today’s dollars.

But again, 17 years later, Supervising Producers at the median were making only $17,500 per episode.

Shouldn’t writer income have been growing instead at the rate of inflation or more? The major companies we bargain with have experienced an extended and unprecedented period of profitability. Much of that success has been fueled by the huge growth in domestic and international demand for the quality content produced by Guild members.

Unprecedented Prosperity: Company Operating Profits Soar

We have made gains in the MBA to deal with many of the business practices that are responsible for depressing writers’ overall wages—short seasons, the spreading of episode fees over a longer period of time, and onerous options and exclusivity provisions. But that is only part of the picture.

Talent Agencies: Conflicted Interests

The MBA establishes minimum compensation for writers. Agents traditionally negotiate an individual writer’s overscale compensation (fees above minimums) which depends on the individual’s leverage and should keep pace with market conditions. But for some time now writers have been experiencing declining overscale compensation in television. So much so that the Guild began to more closely monitor total writer-producer income in television by soliciting information in three surveys, first in the 2013-14 season, then again in the 2015-2016 season, and most recently for the 2017-2018 season.

The survey results confirmed that pay was falling. Between the 2013-14 and 2015-16 seasons, the median weekly compensation for writer-producer declined 23%. During the 2017-18 season, median weekly compensation improved slightly compared to 2015-16, but remains 16% lower than in 2013-14. Some of this decline was due to the rise of short seasons and increased time spent working on each episode, but the surveys have also revealed that episodic quotes are under pressure. The median episodic fee for each level of writer-producer remained flat or declined by up to 7% between 2013-14 and 2017-18.

But episodic quotes have been stagnating for longer than this two-year period. The WGAW reviewed TV writer-producer contracts from the late 90’s to reveal that median quotes have barely budged in two decades and in some cases have declined. The main factor driving the increase in median quotes for co-producer and producer level writers is the annual increase in Article 14 minimums negotiated by the Guild. The third column of figures shows the 1995-2000 rates adjusted for inflation.

Writer-Producer Median Episodic Fee

Title 1995-2000 2017-18 1995-2000
Inflation-Adjusted to
Co-Producer 10,500 14,000 16,400
Producer 12,500 16,000 19,500
Supervising Producer 16,500 17,500 25,750
Co-Executive Producer 22,500 23,250 35,100
Executive Producer 35,000 32,000 54,600

What happened in these two decades? The Guild achieved increases in minimums during this time, but agents have not kept up their end of the bargain by fighting for increases in their clients’ overscale payments.

The largest agencies have instead used the power of their clients to monopolize packaging and earn their fees directly from the studios. In the 2016-2017 season, almost all dramatic series were packaged by an agency, with WME and CAA dominating the practice.

2016-2017 Season: 300+ Dramatic Series Packaged

Agency Sole Packages Shared Packages
WME 84 59
CAA 64 61
UTA 36 53
ICM 14 30
Paradigm 3 10
APA 2 1
Gersh 1 2
Rothman-Brecher 1 2

Under this model, the connection between agent and client compensation has been severed. Rather, the agency makes more money by driving up its fee in the budget and by profiting on the back-end.

This has to change. Agency interests must be realigned so that agents are incentivized to demand that writers are properly compensated. We are living through an era of unprecedented prosperity for the media companies.

If demand is at an all-time high, why are writers’ episodic quotes lower, not higher?

Peak TV is no accident; it is a function of the global growth of the television business and the resulting revenue opportunities. Through packaging, the major agencies have experienced the upside of Peak TV. And, because they don’t make their money on the 10%, have not felt the downside of short orders and episode fees being spread across many weeks. In December 2018, credit rating agency S&P wrote of CAA, “The explosion of content from over-the-top (OTT) players such as Netflix, Amazon, and Hulu has favorably affected the company’s television revenue, particularly its TV packaging revenue…The packaging of talent, along with the massive increase in TV content production, has driven most of the growth in the company’s TV segment…”1

Writers are the creative heart of television and are ultimately responsible for the most important assets in the business, yet they have been left behind.

1Standards & Poor’s Credit Research, CAA Holdings LLC at 5 (Dec. 4, 2018)

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