Pilot Season Shifts Raise Writers’ Concerns About Payday Protocols

Scribes worried that some work will fall outside of existing compensation structures

Pilot Season Shifts Raise Writers' Concerns
Larry Buchanan

The major networks are determined to shake up the status quo of pilot season by forging new paths to getting scripted series on the air.

But in so doing, there inevitably will be some adjustments along the way for various constituencies whose work has been governed for decades by rigid protocols when it comes to compensation.

Among the many questions stirred by the new approaches taken by Fox, NBC and others is whether they will affect the pay scales of writers over the long term. It’s no secret that network execs often refer to pilot season as a form of welfare for the creative community, because hundreds of millions of dollars are spent developing projects, most of which never see a timeslot. In recent years, the Big Four networks have plowed $80 million-$100 million apiece into script development and pilot production.

Under the terms of the Writers Guild of America contract with the major nets and studios, writers earn higher fees for penning the story and teleplay for a pilot than they do for crafting scripts for non-pilot episodes. But networks are increasingly skipping the pilot stage and going straight to series on some projects. In other cases, the nets are commissioning as many as three or four scripts and hiring multiple writers to work on a project as they consider ordering a pilot or a straight-to-series greenlight.

Experienced TV scribes and showrunners have generally applauded the networks’ willingness to experiment. But there have been questions raised about how writers will be compensated for work that may fall into the gray area between a pilot commission and a full-blown episodic series order. At a time when paydays for writers are under pressure by the flood of lower-budget cable and digital productions, scribes are wary of any erosion in pay scales set after decades of hard bargaining by the WGA.

Network sources say they are sensitive to these concerns, which are bubbling up at a time when the WGA and the Alliance of Motion Picture and Television Producers happen to be in the midst of negotiations on a new master contract. It’s understood that broadcast nets see the Article 14 section of the WGA’s famously complex master contract (the latest edition runs 610 pages), which covers “writers also employed in additional capacities,” as laying out the compensation formulas for areas that deviate from past norms.

Sources say nets are generally treating the first episode in straight-to-series orders as the pilot episode, meaning that scribes still command a minimum fee that is 150% of the rate for a regular episodic story and teleplay. And as a practical matter, guild minimums usually serve only as a floor price for newer writers, while established talent has the clout to negotiate much higher fees.

At the same time, the WGA master contract sets the precedent that different types of writing work — from outlining plots and bibles to second and third polishes on the finished end — will have specific compensation rates.

Nobody is openly crying foul, but there’s concern that writers may wind up doing some job functions outside of established pay structures. Network execs stress that all work will be covered in keeping with existing norms.

WGA reps declined to comment.