Will Hollywood Writers Go on Strike? The Tricky Economics of "Peak TV"

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As the number of scripted series and TV writers surge, shorter orders stall the volume of produced episodes and staff writer earnings, while screenwriters' wages drop 21 percent.

With scripted television booming — 455 series this season, more than double the number six years ago — it ought to be a great time to be a TV writer. And the ongoing Writers Guild negotiations should be a cakewalk, right?

So you'd think, but it's actually not Easy Street at all, because, as previously unpublished data reveals, growth in the labor supply has outstripped growth in demand, while shorter series orders mean writers, who are held under option from season to season, may be working yet making less than before.

That's just one of the issues that WGA and AMPTP studio negotiators are confronting as talks continue into a second week on a new three-year union deal. But it's one of the hardest on the agenda. Yes, screenwriters too are unhappy ­— their inflation-adjusted average wages dropped by 21 percent during the 2010-15 period — but more than twice as many writers now work in TV as in features, leading to a feeling that these negotiations are TV-centric.

All that economic stress has led to talk of a strike, but media reports suggesting that a walkout is likely are probably overblown. Says one management-side lawyer, "[The union doesn't] have any other leverage, so they're saber-rattling. Unless they're really crazy, I don’t think a strike is going to happen."

In practical terms, part of the deal — basic wage increases and residuals ­— is already done. That's because those portions of the new pact are almost certain to track the recent Directors Guild deal in a phenomenon called "pattern bargaining." And just as the DGA received extra-large increases for directors of certain types of product, the WGA might seek some special relief for certain classes of TV writers and screenwriters.

Yet another tough issue is the guild's affiliated health plan, which has run deficits for the past two years, a fact that may trigger reductions in benefits and eligibility, and will almost certainly require an increase in employer contributions. Such increases typically come out of the wage bumps. The DGA, for instance, upped contributions to its pension plan by 0.5 percent, resulting in a first-year annual wage increase of 2.5 percent rather than 3 percent. The WGA is likely to do likewise for its health plan.

But saber-rattling or not, the union discontent is real. Says one working TV writer, "It's becoming harder and harder to make a living as a middle-class writer." And that appears to be true: The intersection of annual holds with the economics of supply and demand create tough issues for writers (as well as for actors, whose negotiations are upcoming).



The Myth of Peak TV

Data ­— and the above two graphics ­— tell the story: The number of series has ballooned, but the number of episodes produced per season has scarcely budged, according to previously unreported figures supplied to The Hollywood Reporter by Darnell Hunt, director of the Ralph J. Bunche Center for African American Studies at UCLA. From 2011-12 to 2014-15, the number of series grew almost 50 percent, but the number of produced episodes grew only 6 percent, from 4,806 episodes to 5,091.

The reason for the disparity? Shorter orders. Series averaged 18.8 episodes per season in 2011-12, but that number plummeted to 13.2 just three years later, dragged down not just by shorter series on digital platforms ­and a slight decline in cable series length, ­but also by a startling 42 percent decline in the length of broadcast series, from 26.5 episodes per series to 15.3.

In economic terms, produced episodes represent demand for writers and others. What about labor supply? Ominously for scribes, the number of working TV writers grew by 20 percent ­— not surprisingly, since each new series needs its own writers -— but that was during the same period that demand grew by only 6 percent.

That mismatch had an effect on wages. The average inflation-adjusted earnings per writer grew about 6 percent in that time period and just 8 percent from 2009 to 2015. That may not sound so bad, but those figures are misleading, because averages — the "arithmetic mean" ­— are disproportionately pulled up by a few high earners such as showrunners, and more series means more showrunners, pulling the average up even more over time.

A better measure of affairs for the "typical writer" ­— a rank-and-file staff writer ­— would be the median, which is the earnings midpoint, where half of all TV writers made more and half made less.

It's impossible to accurately calculate that figure without internal WGA data, but by making some assumptions, it's possible to come up with a rough guesstimate. THR's calculations suggest flat earnings, but even that may be optimistic. That's because shorter series orders mean lower salaries for writers, notwithstanding the potential 12-month holds and exclusivity they are subject to.

Writers get residuals too, of course, and average TV residuals have increased, per WGA data, even when inflation-adjusted. But it's hard to know the meaning of those figures, not just because they're not the median, but also because a lot of residuals relate to older, library product and don't necessarily benefit currently working TV writers.

What about producing fees? Those aren't reported by the guild, but in any case, they're the purview mostly of showrunners and seasoned writer-producers, not the staff writer rank and file who are feeling the squeeze from holds, short orders and labor oversupply.

It's a tough problem. The studios and producers need those annual holds in order to ensure that the writers are available if the series gets picked up for the following season. Writers are compensated for the holds, but not at the same level they're compensated for working.

The result is apparently flat or declining wages ­— and a peak TV effect that's creating a mountain of difficulty for writers, just one of the summits negotiators will have to navigate on their way to a deal.