This is the third piece in an ongoing Variety Intelligence Platform series on the 2020 contract negotiations between the Writers Guild of America and the Alliance of Motion Picture and Television Producers. Part 1 concentrated upon what was at stake in the negotiations. Part 2 looked in depth at one of the major issues in streaming media residuals. The analysis in this piece is concerned with what’s known as “span”.
To non-industry insiders, span refers to the length of time committed to working on shows, and payment relating to this. For span payments to apply to a writer, several criteria must be met:
- Total earnings must be less than $350k, and the writer is paid by the episode (“episodic fees”);
- For network TV shows on ABC, CBS, The CW, FOX and NBC, the show must have a maximum of 12 episodes in the season order;
- For shows on cable, premium cable and subscription streaming services, the maximum episode order is 14.
Based on the 2017 negotiations with the AMPTP, an episodic fee is currently defined as 2.4 weeks of work. Thus a 10 episode season means 24 weeks of work. Should the amount of time go beyond the provision of the episodic fee, additional weeks are paid by what’s known as the overscale weekly rate, calculated as the episodic fee divided by 2.4.
VIP’s prediction is for the episodic fee to be lowered to 2 weeks of work per episode, but for overscale to remain. With the WGA announcing prior to the negotiations that they intended to improve the span provision, change is likely.
Where the issue arises between the Guild and the studios is in those cases where the overscale weekly rate is enacted. The WGA maintains that working beyond the episodic rate drives down the episodic fee, as once the total amount earned for the season is divided by the total amount of time spent working on it, the average sum earned was close to the minimum agreed rate in the terms agreed with the networks and studios.
The issue can be further exacerbated by the studio requesting a writer spend time in pre-production on the script, eating into the time spent on the show and driving the average earnings per episode down further. In some ways, this mirrors the trend seen in mainstream America, where the move to salaried positions has seen many expected to work beyond their standard 40 hour week, driving the average hourly rate of pay down.
Despite being paid for the additional time spent beyond the anticipated episodic load, increasing lengths of time spent on a show created another issue for writers. With most modern shows coming in below the traditional network TV order, writers would need to find multiple gigs a year to earn a similar amount. When studios began adding additional weeks to the current role, it tied the talent down and prevented writers from taking on additional shows, missing pay days and leading some to struggle financially.
In the 2017 negotiations, the WGA wanted to limit the number of weeks that the episodic fee could be charged. The compromise they came to with the studios then was for the aforementioned 2.4 weeks per episode. For 2020, expect the WGA to negotiate this down to the old network TV standard of 2 weeks per episode.
Objectively it could be argued that the Guild should move with the times and stop using network TV as the basis for employment options. Network shows have not made up the majority of employment options for WGA writers throughout the 2010s, with the rise first of cable scripted shows, and then streaming originals. Looking to what used to be, with fewer opportunities for writers overall but those few opportunities offering enough stability to not require another writing job, doesn’t take into account the fact that the world has changed and it now offers more opportunities to write than ever before.
With that said, what the Guild is attempting to do is to make networks and studios commit to terms, and let their members be paid what they are expecting. Simply put, the Guild wants 12 episodes to mean 24 weeks of employment, and enable writers to have the flexibility to look for additional shows knowing they will be able to commit on the start date. The AMPTP may counter by saying that their flexibility is impeded by not being able to react to unforeseen circumstances. Meeting in the middle is our expectation.