As negotiations resume today on a new WGA film and TV contract, one of the guild’s main goals is to address the declining fortunes of TV writers. But two sets of competing earnings data, each pointing in a different direction, may make it difficult for negotiators to crunch the numbers — or even to agree on which numbers to crunch — as the writers and the Alliance of Motion Picture & Television Producers attempt to avert a threatened strike.

“The $49 billion annual operating profit accumulated by the six major media companies with whom we will be negotiating is double what their profit numbers were only a decade ago,” the WGA said going into the talks. “Contrast that with the economic picture facing the members of our guilds, whose average incomes in both features and series TV have actually decreased over that same decade.”

But the companies may argue that just the opposite is true – at least for TV writers, whose average earnings actually increased over the last 10 years, according to the WGA West’s own annual reports. Those reports show the average earnings rose by nearly $50,000 from 2006 to 2015 – an increase of more than 25%.

WGA Writers Earnings 2006-2015

year writers employed total earnings (in $millions) average earnings
2006 3,246 $471.0M $145,101
2007 3,350 $454.9M $135,791
2008 3,100 $458.7M $147,968
2009 3,176 $517.3M $162,878
2010 3,242 $569.9M $175,786
2011 3,450 $619.1M $179,449
2012 3,701 $730.8M $197,460
2013 3,870 $730.2M $186,682
2014 4,151 $819.4M $197,398
2015 4,129 $803.0M $194,478

Source: WGA West annual report

Overall, except for a dip in 2013 and during the 2007 strike year, average TV earnings covered by the contract have been moving steadily upward, as have the number of TV writers employed.

But the WGA can argue that two things can be true at once – that average TV earnings may be up 25% over 10 years, but that the average TV income of its members can still be down 25% over that same period. That’s because not all of their members’ income is from WGA-covered writing assignments but also from producing fees. “Writer-producers at all levels of experience have seen their compensation for a year of working on a series drop, at the median, between 8% and 26%,” the guild said. “Even showrunners not on overall deals have seen their compensation drop 21%.”

Median earnings 2013-2014 To 2015-2016

job percent change
Co-Producer -19%
Producer -19%
Supervising Producer -12%
Co-Executive Producer -26%
Consulting Producer -23%
Executive Producer -8%
Showrunner -21%
TOTAL -25%

Source: WGA West annual report

To support its anecdotal claim that members’ TV earnings are in decline, the WGA West points to a two-season survey of working writer-producers that found a 25% overall decline in their median incomes from the 2013-2014 season to the 2015-2016 season. (In 2014, 950 of 2,200 working writer-producers responded to the survey; in 2016, 1,008 of 2,600 responded.) Extrapolating from those numbers, the guild maintains that the average TV incomes of their members — including executive producers, showrunners and all manner of writer-producer hyphenates — “have actually declined” over the last decade.

True as this may be, the producer fees that writers receive are outside the scope of the current collective bargaining agreement, and are not part of the negotiations.

To bolster its bargaining position, the AMPTP may point to the WGA’s annual reports, which show that writers aren’t doing so bad – at least on average. And those numbers are based on hard figures; they’re the numbers, reported by members and crossed-checked against employer reports, upon which the guild bases its dues assessments (1.5% of earnings). So the guild can vouch for their accuracy.

But even by those numbers, the 25% pay increase the average writer has received over the past 10 years has barely kept up with inflation, and at just 2.5% a year, is less than the usual 3% pay raise writers get each year. Three years ago, they got 2.5% raise in the first year of the contract and 3% in each of the second and third years.

Neither set of figures – one showing average earnings up 25% and the other showing median incomes of writer-producers down 25% – includes residuals. In 2015, TV writers received $261.7 million in residuals – up more than 50% from 2010.