Examining TV Writer Financials
Even if you don’t keep up with the news, you may have noticed lately when you’ve turned on your TV that the variety of selections has diminished. That’s because on Tuesday, May, 2, 2023, the Writers Guild of America (WGA) went on strike. A range of shows from Jeopardy and late night talk shows to Paramounts 1923 and HBO’s House of the Dragon have been impacted.
But when you think of television work, you probably think of limousines, of award shows, of stars and big pay days. And you’d be right . . . in some respects. Variety magazine reports that Netflix co-CEOs Ted Sarandos and Reed Hastings were paid more than $50 million each in 2022. Similarly, Disney’s Bob Iger made $15 million while Discovery’s exec, David Zaslav made $39 million. TV actors show a much more modest average income of $97,000, but stars can command millions per episode. Ray Romano, for example, during the height of Everybody Loves Raymond, made $1.7 million per episode. Jenifer Aniston of Friends fame, made a $1 million per episode and later on Apple’s hit The Newsroom received $1.25 million per episode.
So with all these big numbers being tossed about, why are writers striking? Are they just whingy little prima donnas? Before you pass judgment, consider this. The average TV writer’s salary reported by Salary.com was $68,052 per year. But what if you work for one of the big production companies? Glassdoor reveals that the average writer at Netflix is making $100,195 per year. If you’re looking for the highest paid screenwriters that compare to onscreen stars, you aren’t likely to find them among TV writers. Even the great Aaron Sorkin of West Wing fame made much of his money from film rather than television.
Lately, things seem to have gotten worse for TV writers. With much of what we watch shifting from network TV to streaming, changes in the way shows are produced and paid for have left those who work for TV struggling. That’s why in 2023, when the WGA membership was asked to ratify their basic agreement, a whopping 98% of members voted for a “pattern of demands.”
One impactful change that occurred in the switch to streaming stems from production. When a TV show was a hit on broadcast TV, writers were often hired to create 22-26 episodes and were usually employed for follow-up seasons as well. Streaming series usually produce 6-10 episodes and often only hire writers for one season. To put this in perspective, the switch from broadcast to streaming has meant a shift from nearly a full year’s employment to about 3 months. Currently, writers are lucky if they pick up one series per year.
A second major change comes in the form of “residuals.” These are payments that credited writers receive each time an episode they’ve worked on airs. This form of payment usually meant a decreasing payment each time a residual check was received until payment hit a contractual minimum below which residuals could not go. In the past, broadcast residuals were much higher and acted as a steady income to supplement the lump sum payments writers were paid. With streaming, there are still residuals but they are often fixed at a much lower price. Glenn Farrington puts this change in perspective. He once co-wrote a one-hour broadcast TV episode which paid $41,000 and for which his half was $20,500. His first residual check was more than $10,000. In contrast, the highest residual check he has ever received from streaming was $1,700, and he says that the average residual check is $400-$600.
Such changes have had a huge impact on what it means to write for television. Roughly a decade ago, somewhere around 20% of TV writers made the minimum wage set by the WGA. In 2023, nearly half of television writers receive minimum pay. It has become clear that while the corporations who produce our TV entertainment continue to grow profits, the brain thrusts who come up with ideas and build the visions we see on screen are being left behind.
Written by Ivan Young in partnership with Faxage online faxing service.