With bargaining set to resume today for a new franchise agreement between the WGA and the Association of Talent Agents, the guild has released a new survey that blames the big agencies’ “conflicted interests” for TV writers’ pay not keeping up with inflation.
“Writers are the creative heart of television and are ultimately responsible for the most important assets in the business, yet they have been left behind,” the guild says in the report (read it here).
The guild’s survey found that in 1999, a writer with the title of Producer on a half-hour network comedy in its first season made $15,000 per episode. “Adjusted for inflation, the fee would be more than $23,400 today,” the guild said. “But in the WGA’s survey of TV writers from the 2017-18 season, the median episodic fee for a writer at the Producer level was only $16,000 per episode.”
The survey also found that in 2000, a supervising producer on a one-hour network drama in its first season made $17,500 per episode. “That would be $27,300 in today’s dollars,” the guild says. “But again, 17 years later, supervising producers at the median were making only $17,500 per episode.”
“Shouldn’t writer income have been growing instead at the rate of inflation or more?” the guild asks. “The major companies we bargain with have experienced an extended and unprecedented period of profitability. Much of that success has been fueled by the huge growth in domestic and international demand for the quality content produced by guild members.”
The WGA West’s latest records show that its members’ earnings hit an all-time record of $1.4 billion in 2017 – up nearly 3% from 2016. Earnings from feature films broke through the $400 million barrier for the first time since 2010, while TV earnings are fast approaching $1 billion a year.
The guild, however, says that median wages actually are on the decline, and it blames the agencies’ “conflicted interests” for the dropoff, despite gains made in contracts with management’s AMPTP. “We have made gains in the Minimum Basic Agreement,” the guild said, “to deal with many of the business practices that are responsible for depressing writers’ overall wages – short seasons, the spreading of episode fees over a longer period of time, and onerous options and exclusivity provisions. But that is only part of the picture.”
The MBA establishes minimum compensation for writers, with agents negotiating on behalf of writers for their over-scale compensation. “But for some time now,” the guild says, “writers have been experiencing declining over-scale compensation in television.” The guild’s survey found that since the late 1990s, episodic writer-producers’ “median quotes have barely budged in two decades and in some cases have declined.
“What happened in these two decades?” the WGA asked. “The guild achieved increases in minimums during this time, but agents have not kept up their end of the bargain by fighting for increases in their clients’ overs-scale payments.”
Noting that the major studios and networks are enjoying “unprecedented prosperity” in the era of Peak TV, the guild said that under the existing business model of packaging fees and agency affiliations with related production entities “the connection “between agent and client compensation has been severed. Rather, the agency makes more money by driving up its fee in the budget and by profiting on the back-end.
“Peak TV is no accident; it is a function of the global growth of the television business and the resulting revenue opportunities,” the guild said. “Through packaging, the major agencies have experienced the upside of Peak TV. And, because they don’t make their money” on 10% commissions on packaged deals, but on packaging fees instead, “have not felt the downside of short orders and episode fees being spread across many weeks.
“This has to change,” the WGA said. “Agency interests must be realigned so that agents are incentivized to demand that writers are properly compensated. We are living through an era of unprecedented prosperity for the media companies.
If demand is at an all-time high, why are writers’ episodic quotes lower, not higher?”
WGA members will be voting next week to approve a new Code of Conduct that will ban packageing fees and agency ties to production affiliates. The WGA and the ATA have until April 6 to make a deal, after which the guild could ask it’s members to fire their agents en masse who don’t sign the Code.