WGA Details How Writers Are Earning Less in Peak TV Era

The Writers Guild of America is making the case to members for why the Peak TV era is fueling the need for significant changes to the pay scales for writers working in television.

The guild on Sunday released a slew of statistics to buttress the argument that writers are working longer but making less despite the abundance of jobs on TV series. The WGA also laid bare the financial straits of its health insurance plan in order to press for higher contributions from studio employers.

The data drop came two days after the guild agreed to restart contract negotiations with the Alliance of Motion Picture and Television Producers on April 10. Tension has been rising between the sides since they ended two weeks of talks on March 23 and the guild initiated a strike authorization vote among members. The current Minimum Basic Agreement expires May 1.

When talks broke down, the WGA told members that the AMPTP’s contract offer was insufficient to address the strains on working writers and the shortfall of its health plan. The data sets released on Sunday are an effort to rally support for the strike authorization vote among members who may be wary of a work stoppage, and they are designed to help the guild make its case in the court of public opinion.

“The entertainment business is thriving because of the content WGA members create,” the guild wrote. “This content has fueled the global growth of the media companies and the meteoric rise of online video distribution. The companies which control this content have reaped the rewards many times over. Writers deserve a fair share of this unprecedented prosperity.”

The compensation structures in the guild’s 600-page Minimum Basic Agreement are becoming anachronistic at a time when most TV series no longer run 22-24 episodes in the traditional September-May TV season. The decline in residual income from network TV is also taking a huge bite out of writers’ paychecks.

“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,” the guild wrote.

According to the guild’s count, the number of TV series running 14 or more episodes per season dropped to 96, or 32% of all mainstream network, cable, and streaming series in the 2015-16 season, down from 37% in 2013-14. The number of series running two to 13 episodes grew 5% during the same period, to 205.

The exponential growth of cable and streaming series that run anywhere from 6-13 episodes per season have taken a huge bite out of the earnings for mid- and lower-level writers in particular. Production on these shows often runs longer than the seven- to eight-day norm of network TV, and they often take more time on the other end in post production. This means that writers who are paid by the episode in many cases are working longer than the two-week frame that those minimums were designed to support. The lengthy exclusive holds that writers face after a season is completed but before renewal decisions are made only makes the financial squeeze worse.

The pressure on earnings means that even experienced writers are working at or near guild scale, which amounts to a huge reversal of fortune.

“The cumulative effect of these factors is that in a time of unprecedented demand, TV writers are, illogically, earning less,” the guild wrote. The guild’s bulletin to members also included charts of the profit growth in the past few years of the media conglomerates that comprise AMPTP membership, and quotes from industry CEOs about new profits harvested from emerging SVOD and international markets.

“Our objective continues to be to reach an agreement with the WGA at the bargaining table,” the AMPTP said in a statement. “We hope the Guild will engage with us on the issues in that forum when negotiations resume on April 10th.”

According to the guild, median earnings for writers at all job classification levels have dropped between the 2013-14 season and 2015-16.

  • Co-Producer (-19%)
  • Producer (-19%)
  • Supervising Producer (-12%)
  • Co-Executive Producer (-26%)
  • Consulting Producer (-23%)
  • Executive Producer (-8%)
  • Showrunner (-21%)

Among the remedies the WGA is seeking is parity in script fees for cable, CW and SVOD series, which now are paid at a lower rate than broadcast network TV and pay TV.

The bulk of the message to members focused on TV-centric issues, but the guild did highlight the growth of the international box office as a revenue source that should be shared with screenwriters.

“The film business has experienced an influx of customers thanks to rising incomes and theater construction globally,” the guild wrote. “In the past decade, international box office has grown by almost 70 percent, from $16 billion in 2006 to $27 billion in 2016.”

As for health insurance, the WGA disclosed that the plan is projected to run at a $13.2 million deficit in 2017, dropping its reserves by $15 million to $164.9 million. At the current rate of health care cost increases, without an increase in current employer contributions the deficit is projected to balloon to $25 million 2018 and more than $65 million by 2020, when reserves will be down to $34.6 million.

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