UTA Reveals TV Writer Pay Details in Effort to Counter Guild Claims

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The research is intended to dispute the WGA narrative that packaging disincentivizes agents from zealous representation.

A UTA study released Wednesday shows that television writers earn more on packaged shows than non-packaged shows, the talent agency said, directly countering with data the Writers Guild’s so-far anecdotal claims to the contrary.

The spread was about 16 percent: $24,389 per episode on packaged shows compared with $21,015 on non-packaged, a difference of $3,374. Most of the difference ($2,439) is attributable to the waived commissions in packages.

The dataset was extensive, covering 33,555 episodes over three TV seasons from 2015 through 2018. It encompasses scripted series, TV movies, pilots, teleplays and sketch shows but only examined data for UTA writers.

Other members of the Association of Talent Agents have not released similar data, and it is highly unusual for talent agencies, which are privately held, to release any such information.

“The data refutes any assumption or claim that packaging causes UTA to fight any less aggressively to gain the highest possible fees on shows that UTA packages,” claims the study. “The data confirms that UTA negotiates the highest rates possible for its writer clients regardless of whether a show is a UTA package or not.”

The episodes analyzed included 18,557 as to which UTA had a full or split package and 14,998 as to which UTA did not have a package. According to UTA, over 500 shows were represented. The data also show higher earnings on packaged shows when measured on a per-assignment basis, but those numbers are less meaningful than the per-episode figures because the number of episodes per assignment was greater on packaged shows.

The WGA has a different view.

“The agencies say that stagnation for lower and midlevel writers is not the result of packaging, that the data proves that writers working on agency-packaged shows are not disadvantaged,” said WGA West president David A. Goodman in response to the study. “This is a false premise. There is no way to compare what writers would make in a world with agency packaging and without agency packaging. Agency packaging is so dominant that it controls the whole market for writers in television. Besides the Disney Channel, virtually all shows are packaged.”

Also, says the guild in an FAQ, “packaging fees remove the single greatest incentive for agents to fight on writers’ behalf: mutual and immediate shared economic self-interest.” But the union has yet to present numerical data to support the implication that packaging disincentivizes agents from zealous representation.

The UTA study aggregates writers of all income levels, but a UTA executive said that lower- and midlevel writers enjoyed roughly the same percentage advantage with packaging as is depicted in the overall figures. There were no breakdowns by income level in the report, and only two lines of data were released, one for UTA-packaged shows and one for other shows.

In packaging, an agency forgos commissioning the client and instead receives a fee from the television studio, which can amount to massive sums if the series has a long run and is sold into aftermarkets such as syndication, DVD/Blu-ray, and foreign broadcast or cable. The study did not consider the possibility that studios might pay some of the packaging fees to writers, a matter that is the subject of fierce disagreement between the WGA and ATA.

The research comes in the context of a bitter fight between the talent agencies and the Writers Guild, which intends to prohibit packaging fees (and affiliated production companies) starting April 7, when the existing agreement between the WGA and ATA terminates. An ATA counterproposal would instead require disclosure of packaging arrangements to writer clients and informed consent, but the guild contends that packaging fees are a conflict of interest.

A meeting Monday between the ATA and WGA produced little progress toward a negotiated solution, but the guild said the two sides will meet again Thursday. Meanwhile, a member vote on the WGA’s proposal is scheduled for March 27-31.

For more on this subject, visit THR's labor page.

March 20, 1:05 p.m. Updated with WGAW response.