Writers Feel Payday Crunch as TV Episode Orders Shrink

WGA Writers Contract Talks
Jim Cooke for Variety

Earlier this year, the Writers Guild of America sent out a survey asking its members what was on their minds as leaders prepared for contract talks with the major studios. The heat behind many of the responses surprised guild chiefs.

TV writers who are on the middle and lower rungs of the pay scale are feeling the pinch amid the shift to shorter episode orders as the rule, rather than the exception, for TV series. There’s a growing sentiment among writers that the TV compensation structure laid out in the WGA’s 300-plus-page Minimum Basic Agreement is rooted in a working environment — the traditional 22-episode, September-to-May television season — that is rapidly disappearing.

The fast-changing environment has led to fist-shaking and use of the “s” word — strike — at informational meetings WGA officials have been holding with TV and film writers during the past few weeks. The West and East branches of the WGA are set to jointly begin contract talks with the Alliance of Motion Picture and Television Producers on March 13, seven weeks before the current contract expires on May 1.

Yes, there’s more work for writers than ever before amid the boom times in series production. Yet for all but the top tier of showrunners, paychecks for staff writers are having to stretch further during the course of a year, unless a scribe is fortunate enough to line up multiple shows with production schedules that don’t overlap on the calendar. The issue of exclusivity that studios require as a condition of staff employment also remains a sore spot for writers, even after the WGA made progress in its last contract in limiting the length of time that lower-paid writers can be held back from seeking other employment.

In the streaming arena, there is often a long gap between the time episodes are written and produced and the time the show goes live on the platform. That has been another source of tension for writers, as exclusive holds often drag on during the gap period, when writers could otherwise be hustling up other gigs.

The mood among many WGA members harks back to the guild’s 13-week 2007-08 strike.
Peter Brooker/REX/Shutterstock

Still another area of concern is the advent of the “mini writers’ room” as an alternative to the traditional pilot development process. A handful of cable networks, notably AMC, increasingly favor a system of bringing together a series creator with two or three other writers to turn out three to four scripts of a prospective series before a pilot is shot. This is significantly less expensive than the $3 million plus required to shoot an hour-long drama pilot from a single script. But the recruits for these setups tend to be less-experienced writers who work at scale, in part because the in-demand showrunners and writers are otherwise occupied on series. The scale for mini writers’ rooms is not the high rate commanded by pilot gigs but, rather, the regular series rate. Moreover, the exclusive hold time for these writers can be long, without the promise of a bigger pilot payday to come.

The WGA, as usual, has sought to rally its members by emphasizing that their work is the driving force behind the profits being raked in by the largest studios. (AMPTP members, of course, disagree with WGA’s math.) “The $49 billion annual operating profit accumulated by the six major media companies with whom we will be negotiating is double what their profit numbers were only a decade ago,” the WGA wrote in a Feb. 9 letter to members. “Contrast that with the economic picture facing the members of our guilds, whose average incomes in both features and series TV have actually decreased over that same decade.”

The WGA minimums that set a floor for writer compensation were established in an era when 22 or 24 episodes per season were the norm for primetime series on major networks. But the expansion of original content across basic and pay cable and the Big Three streaming services (Netflix, Amazon, and Hulu) has made 10-13 episodes per season the new standard. The rising appetite for limited series and miniseries has added another variation, with episode orders that can run anywhere from four to 20.

The Big Four broadcast networks have historically operated with a higher union pay scale for writers, directors, and actors compared with cable and, now, streaming services. The rationale was that broadcast was a more established and more prosperous business than that of its newer competitors.

But the explosion of work in cable and streaming has had the effect of exaggerating the pay gap among writers doing the same kinds of jobs but in different venues.

For writers with the clout to negotiate their own paydays well above guild minimums, the new world order has its benefits. Plenty of showrunners and actors prefer the shorter orders to the grind of 22 episodes.

But for writers who work at scale, the shift has created a class system that is breeding angst. One proposal that has surfaced as a result of the WGA’s membership meetings is the creation of a two-tiered scale system with higher fees for shows that run fewer than 22 episodes in order to make up some of the pay gap.

The explosion of work in cable and streaming has had the effect of exag- gerating the pay gap among writers doing the same kinds of jobs but in different venues.

This, of course, is likely to fly like a lead balloon with the studios. The struggle WGA negotiators face is that the AMPTP has historically sought to stick to its “pattern bargaining” template, meaning it applies the same contract terms to the three major talent guilds: the WGA, the DGA, and SAG-AFTRA.

The studios in December cut a three-year deal with the Directors Guild that included a threefold gain in residuals for original series on the largest SVOD platforms (read: Netflix
and Amazon) and hikes for residuals of reruns from broadcast and cable on ad-supported streaming services (read: Hulu). Those are meaningful gains at a time when the residuals for broadcast network repeats — the richest on the residual scale, and once a huge source of annual income for scribes — have shrunk as networks carry fewer reruns.

Like the WGA, the DGA’s pay scale is broken down by broadcast, pay and basic cable, and streaming. But TV directors don’t feel the same pinch from the variation in episodic series orders because most episodic helmers roam from show to show during the season, rather than serving on staff for a full season.

The new DGA contract is believed to generate about $110 million in gains for directors across all increases in residuals and standard percentage-gain minimums. The WGA can expect a similar proposal from the studios. A WGA effort to re-engineer the structure of the pay scale along multiple tiers is likely to be met with significant resistance at a time when the studios are grappling with the economic disruption of the transition of content to an on-demand world.

On top of everything else, the WGA is in desperate need of a capital infusion from the studios to shore up its pension and health plan. WGA members who earn enough to qualify for health insurance do not pay premiums for their high-end coverage plans — a luxury that even some writers say the guild can no longer afford.

The appetite among some of the WGA’s 12,000 members to push hard, even at the risk of a work stoppage, for big gains in the scale area is strong. The depth of the frustration is said to have been eye-opening to negotiating committee co-chairs Chip Johannessen, Chris Keyser (a former WGA president), and Billy Ray. There’s a feeling that the guild needs to deliver on items that are not on the agenda established by the DGA pact. That sets the stage for fireworks when the sides sit down at the extra-long negotiating table at the AMPTP’s Encino, Calif., headquarters.

WGA leaders may find themselves expending as much energy on managing the expectations of a restless membership as they do on finding creative solutions to bottom-line problems at the bargaining table.