Bargaining on a new contract isn’t expected to begin until next month, but if tonight’s informational meeting is any indication, the Writers Guild of America is definitely on a strike footing. “It seems that if they took a strike authorization vote tonight, it would be favorable,” said a seemingly dismayed writer upon leaving the meeting. “They were cheering speakers who were in favor of a hard line, and booing those who expressed trepidation.”
Non-members weren’t allowed inside the jam-packed Grand Ballroom at the Sheraton Universal, but if the cheers and wild applause echoing in the hallway were any indication, the guild’s leaders definitely have the support of their members.
“It’s a united guild,” said a member leaving the meeting. “It’s good to be together.”
With the guild’s pattern of demands expected to be released any day now, one issue has emerged as the clear rallying point for a potential strike: the recent downturn in weekly compensation for series TV writer-producers. Two guild surveys, which polled some 2,000 working writer-producers, found a 23% overall decline in their median incomes from the 2013-2014 season to the 2015-2016 season.
The WGA West’s annual reports show that in 2015, the last year for which data is available, 4,129 writers earned $803 million under the guild’s basic contract, for an average annual income of $194,478. On average, TV writers made $48,936 more a year in 2015 than they did in 2006 — a 33.6% increase — when 3,335 TV writers earned $454 million, for an average annual salary of $136,132.
But those numbers are only based on guild minimums, and don’t include the moneys they make as writers employed in additional capacities, such as producers and executive producers. And that’s where TV writer-producers are taking it on the chin — at least, that’s what the guild’s two-season survey suggests. And extrapolating from that survey, guild leaders maintain that the average incomes of TV writers “have actually declined” over the last decade.
The survey was sent to all 2,600 of the WGA West’s working TV writer-producers following the 2015-16 season (to which 1,008 members responded) and to all 2,250 working writer-producers following the 2013-2014 season (to which about 950 responded).
The leading cause for the downturn is the shortening of many shows’ seasons, with fewer episodes meaning fewer dollars for writer-producers. In years past, writers might be paid for 22 episodes strung out over 44 weeks, but it’s now not uncommon to see as few as 10-13 episodes in a season — a trend that started with The Sopranos and Mad Men, and has caught on with Netflix, Amazon and even network shows.
The decade-long decline in earnings for film writers — due largely to the decadelong slide in the number of films being produced — and the troubled finances of the guild’s ailing health plan, are also serious concerns for the guild and its members, but the problems of TV writers definitely appear to be the guild’s top priority.
Contract negotiations with management’s AMPTP are expected to begin next month.