No more 'peak TV'? Why TV's golden age isn't one for its writers.
It's a paradox: Peak TV has led to more creative freedom, but lower paychecks, writers say. They are mulling the first strike in a decade.
| Los Angeles
The last time Speed Weed found himself jobless, it was 2011, his wife had just given birth to triplets, and he couldn't find work for almost a year.
But Mr. Weed wasn’t worried. A television writer and producer, he relied on residuals – payments made to creators and performers for subsequent screenings of their work – from two years of writing and producing for the police procedural “Law and Order: Special Victims Unit.”
The show reran on NBC. So the checks kept coming – long enough for him to pick up work again, first for a USA Network miniseries in 2012 and then for the CW’s superhero series “Arrow” in 2015.
“If that happened today, I wouldn’t make it,” says Weed, now the show’s co-executive producer.
That’s because times have changed in television, he says. Over the past five years, a broader range of content platforms has given viewers free reign over what to watch and when to watch it. Studios are producing more and better programming than ever: The number of scripted shows doubled – from about 200 to more than 400 – between 2009 and 2015. Netflix alone is reportedly producing 1,000 hours of original programs in 2017. Pundits call the era “peak TV.”
From the questions "Westworld" raises about what it means to be human, to the '80s sci-fi nostalgia of "Stranger Things," to the heart-wringing twists of "This Is Us," TV has never been more fun to watch. But ironically, writers like Weed say, TV's new golden age has been anything but for the people creating it. Screenwriters can take more creative risks than when it was a six-channel, three-camera world, but the financial rewards aren't making their way to the writers rooms.
“It’s a great time to be in television,” says Ken Kristensen, who is currently working on a Marvel show for Netflix. “We just have to make sure that it’s a sustainable environment for writers.”
Most writers are celebrating this new creative freedom. But, they say, it comes at a price.
Higher-quality shows mean shorter series that take longer to write than, say, an episode of a traditional sitcom. For writers – most of whom are compensated per episode – that means a significant pay cut for work compared with a 22- to 24-episode program. Online subscription video-on-demand platforms like Amazon, Netflix, and Hulu have also meant less reliance on the model of residual compensation that kept Weed afloat during his year of unemployment.
Which is why the first Hollywood writers’ strike in a decade is looking more likely. On Monday, negotiations resumed between the Writers Guild of America (WGA) and Hollywood’s studio alliance. At issue: a new film and TV contract that the guild says would better reflect industry changes. If negotiations fail, the guild will seek permission from its members to hold a strike – which could cost the industry hundreds of millions of dollars – starting May 2. On Thursday, at least 100 workers walked out of a dozen reality show companies in an effort to push negotiations forward.
The negotiations speak to a cultural transformation that could, over time, shake up the television business, says Miranda Banks, an associate professor of film and media at Boston’s Emerson College and author of, “The Writers: A History of American Screenwriters and Their Guild.”
“There’s a disconnect that we’re going to have to figure out in the coming years between where audiences are, where compensation comes from, and where the studios make money,” she says. “The entire industry is under enormous upheaval.”
'There are ... 50 shows I'd love to write for'
On Monday night, a captive audience watched the pilot of the new Starz series “American Gods” at a screening held at the Los Angeles County Museum of Art. The show, based on the 2001 Neil Gaiman novel, follows an ex-convict and a disguised Norse deity (played by British actors Ricky Whittle and Ian McShane) as they traverse America in a bid to convince the old gods of mythology to wage war against the new gods of media and technology.
The show’s themes center on culture, worship, faith, even immigration, as aging divinities try to survive in a consumerist new world.
Its style and approach, meanwhile, are indicative of TV’s growing reputation as the realm of the risky. In one memorable scene, the goddess Bilquis, played by Yetide Badaki, dispatches an unwary victim in a gasp-inducing manner. In another, a facehugger robot transforms into a virtual reality mask that allows Mr. Whittle’s character, Shadow Moon, to converse with one of the gods of technology in an improbable, fantastic limousine.
“There are no creative no-go zones anymore,” says Weed, the CW producer. “If you’re good at your storytelling, you can do anything you want. There are probably 50 shows I would love to write for right now.”
Innovation, however, isn’t the only trend “American Gods” adapts. The show’s first season is eight episodes long – a new normal among scripted series as networks aim to produce a wider variety of programs to cater to more niche audiences.
Streaming and video on demand platforms have also allowed shows to rely less on episode counts for syndication. For decades, getting a show to 80 to 100 episodes was crucial to increase profits for a series – more episodes meant a greater chance of airing as a daily staple on cable networks and local TV stations.
“Studios can now begin monetizing shows almost immediately,” writes Joe Adalian for Vulture. “Now, it’s not uncommon for a new show to be ‘syndicated’ to Netflix within weeks of wrapping its freshman year.”
For writers, most of whom rely on a per-episode fee to bolster their base salary, the new model has meant major pay cuts, the WGA says. The guild estimates that between 2013 and 2016, compensation among writer-producers at all levels dropped between 8 and 26 percent.
That’s largely because the fee per episode no longer runs parallel to the time spent creating a show, says Jason Mittell, a professor of film and media culture at Middlebury College in Vermont.
“They’re spending three months planning out the season, parsing things out, slowly developing the story in a drawn-out process,” he says. “That leads to a really great show. But it ends up they don’t get paid as much overall because they’re working on fewer episodes.”
All this comes at a time when the entertainment industry, and television in particular, is more profitable than ever – the six media companies employing most of the guild’s members made about $51 billion in operating profits in 2016, the WGA reports.
“We need to rectify this unacceptable situation where writer incomes are declining and the shows they are creating are making companies rich,” says Neal Sacharow, the guild’s communications director.
How likely is a strike?
Just hours before fans settled in to watch “American Gods,” negotiators for the WGA and the Alliance of Motion Picture and Television Producers sat down to discuss the terms of a new contract. Ahead of the talks, the guild called for a strike authorization vote by its 12,000 members. A vote to authorize would give the guild permission to use a strike as leverage to cut a deal by May 1.
Strike or not, however, industry experts say it’s a crucial moment in television and entertainment – one worth watching, so to speak. The last strike, which started in 2007, lasted for 100 days and cost the industry an estimated $2 billion, according to the Milken Institute.
Historically, strikes have taken place at times when shifts in technology have led to changes in audience behavior, which in turn lead to calls for restructuring compensation models, says Professor Banks at Emerson. This time is no different.
“Everybody has to reimagine where the money comes from within this industry,” she says. “Everyone is trying to see where things are now, but also predict the future. And that's where negotiations get tricky.”
For writers, it’s about getting what they say is their fair share of the pie.
“Stability has never been part of this game, and it’s the life of being an artist. You’re hustling all the time,” says Mr. Kristensen. But compensation needs to be equivalent to the work, he says, and a writer needs to be able to make enough to get through the inevitable lean years.
“A writer can always write, but you can’t always support yourself, have a mortgage, support your children,” says Christine Boylan, who has written and produced for shows including “Once Upon A Time” and “Castle,” both on ABC. “If we make a deal so that everyone finds profit, that would be great.”
Financial concerns aside, writers tend to view the current era with excited optimism.
“Writers have felt for a long time from agents that you can’t do something because nobody's ever done it before. Now there’s a sense that people want to see things that have never been done before,” Weed says. “That’s fantastic.”