Tis the season to quickly Google the cost of a gift that someone gave you, so that you can ascertain both how much you mean to them, as well as their disposable income. In the spirit of the holidays, it seemed like the perfect time to remind you that your goal for Christmas 2014 should be to make friends with your friendly neighborhood TV writer—sure they may be anti-social and laugh at their own jokes, but they sure do make a lot of money, and those retina displays aren't buying themselves, now are they?
Variety reported last week that the Writer's Guild of America will be renegotiating their minimum basic agreement, a basic contract they have with the Alliance of Motion Picture and Television Producers (AMPTP) to make sure that all members of the guild are paid a certain minimum wage based on specific services rendered. Among the WGA's key demands are an increase in cable payment to its writers—no surprise given the rise in quality of cable television programming, and the increased viewership (and thus, ad dollars) that cable networks and producers are profiting from.
Sticker shock aside, there are a few major takeaways from the numbers below—but before we dive into the numbers, it's important to remember that these numbers are simply minimums. Savvy agents will negotiate a far higher payday for their clients, both on their weekly salaries as well as their rate for writing a specific episode. The minimums are also far closer to the actual payday for staff writers, but once you get to a level higher than staff writer (story editor, executive story editor, producer, etc.), the minimum amount of payment is far lower than what you'll generally be paid: they solely exist to prevent a network from lowballing a writer far below their paygrade.
|Service||Network Minimum||Cable Minimum|
|30 Minute Story||$8,062||$5,432|
|30 Minute Teleplay||$17,343||$8,821|
|30 Minute Story + Teleplay||$24,183||$13,557|
|60 Minute Story||$14,192||$9,871|
|60 Minute Teleplay||$23,399||$17,096|
|60 Minute Story + Teleplay||$35,568||$24,768|
|Staff Writer - 6 Week Guarantee||$4,318/week||same as network|
|Staff Writer - 14 Week Guarantee||$4,014/week||same as network|
|Staff Writer - 20 Week Guarantee||$3,703/week||same as network|
|Any Level Above Staff Writer - up to 9 Weeks||$8,055/week||same as network|
|Any Level Above Staff Writer - 10 to 19 Week Guarantee||$6,712/week||same as network|
|Any Level Above Staff Writer - 20 Weeks or More Guarantee||$6,036/week||same as network|
Being staffed on a TV show is good money. Really good money.
Though show schedules can vary, there are still basic amounts of how many weeks of production you can expect to be paid for. A show that is in production for six weeks (which would be about six episodes, though often rooms start earlier than episodes start shooting), would earn a staff writer—the lowest rung on the writers' room totem pole—a minimum of $25,908. Network shows that go a full season are generally in production for 26 weeks, to produce 22 episodes, so though the weekly staff writer payday dips a bit, a staff writer would still pocket a little over $96,000. At a level higher than staff writer? A full 26-week season for anyone above staff writer pays out just $60 dollars short of $157,000, at minimum. And remember, there are about eight levels between staff writer and show creator…those are some pretty high six-figures, on average.
The major discrepancy between network and cable payouts isn't at the weekly salary level, but in specific episodic rates.
Cable and network writers are held to the same minimum weekly paydays, though it's naive to assume that they thus make the same. Cable shows often have far fewer episodes per season (usuall six to twelve), making the weekly payouts lower. The increases the WGA is negotiation for come at the episodic level—when writers are commissioned to write specific episodes and can earn money for story and teleplay. (Story fees are simply paid out to whomever conceived the episode idea, teleplay goes to the actual writer. Story and teleplay combo fees, accordingly, are if the idea and script come from the same writer.)
For a comedy story, cable networks pay at just 67% the rate of a primetime network. For a teleplay, that rate drops to 51%. For both story and teleplay, it's in between, with cable paying just 56% of what a network like ABC or NBC would. For dramas, the discrepancy hovers around 70% in all categories. If the AMPTP meets the WGA's demand to increase cable payouts, they will be reinforcing the fact that cable television is as in-demand as a network television job (if not moreso), and should be compensated accordingly.
In this metric, the writers at staff writer level are still the ones getting screwed—even if they're assigned an episode during their tenure as a staff writer, they don't get paid story or teleplay fees on top of their weekly salary. Those perks are only reserved for story editors and above.
Given the numbers above, coupled with the sharp uptick in quality of cable programming in the last few years, it's no wonder that the WGA is seeking to increase cable payouts. Cable shows are often lauded for their quality due to their high production value—fewer episodes doesn't just combat viewer fatigue and help avoided strung-out storylines, it also means fewer weeks of production, allowing for higher budgets per week. While AMPTP members will doubtlessly argue that by increasing writer salaries, production budgets for those shows may decrease, the guild can always argue back that the lack of brain drain to network shows by good writers following the money will more than make up for it.The negotiations shouldn't prove tricky, given that no one wants to sink back into another writer's strike like the strike of 2007-08, over issues such as DVD residual fees and new media payouts, among others.
No matter how you slice it, given that the bare-bones minimum of a TV writer's salary on a full season show gets damn near six figures, now is the time to start your campaign for next season's iPad. How else do they expect you to stream their well-compensated work, after all?