Lately, it has felt like we are entering a new age of television every other week. From Warner Bros. Discovery’s massive content purge to the implication that a 22 episode season of TV is “supersized,” there have been a lot of chances that have stretched across the streaming landscape and traditional network broadcasting. While there are certain things that can be attributed to the stress the pandemic put on the industry, there are a lot of things that became trends behind the scenes well before the Spring of 2020 that were only encouraged by the need for the industry to adapt.
Over the last few years, television seasons have been getting shorter and shorter. This can be partially attributed to the pandemic forcing shorter seasons on all of network television, but streaming arguably holds more weight here. Most series that make their homes on platforms like Netlflix, Hulu, and HBO Max range from 8-10 episodes a season, and those are the same shows that have dominated our screens. Whether or not shorter seasons becoming regular is something that viewers want is one thing, but what’s more important is how that affects the people making these shows.
The Writers Guild of America (WGA) famously went on strike from November of 2007 to February of 2008, and in the process established new payment structures for “New Media” distributors like iTunes, where content could be purchased and rented. The strike also established the groundwork for ad-supported streaming compensation as well as rules that required New Media productions to hire WGA members instead of non-union writers for their projects. These results have since been the jumping-off point for negotiations surrounding compensation for present day New Media distributors, like the abundance of streaming services we have access to today, ad-supported or not. While the contracts over the past decade have successfully pushed for more expansive payment for writers when it comes to New Media, it still isn’t up to the same level as traditional network television is. The 2007-2008 strike may have protected writers from a far worse set of circumstances in our current day, but as streaming becomes a more dominant form of television distribution, the WGA is once again setting their sights on ensuring continuing stability for their guild members.
With the WGA contract expiring on May 1st, there is a significant amount of speculation that another strike reminiscent of the late 2000s is on the horizon. After digging through the math of the current contract, it’s clear to see that despite the decline of network TV, traditional networks like ABC, CBS, NBC, and FOX are still where the majority of the money is, especially when it comes to residual payments. While both traditional and New Media residual compensation reduces over time, someone writing an episode of TV for HBO Max is only eligible for residual payment from the platform once a year, 90 days after work is released. Someone writing an episode for NBC is eligible to be paid every time that episode airs again on its home network—where they stand to make 20% more than the first year of residuals from a major streaming service—or on basic cable where Network TV also has the advantage of syndication. Even when an episode of TV has been long gone from its original channel’s schedule, there’s still a chance for it to make money elsewhere. This isn’t to say that the money earned from syndicated episodes of TV is massive. Writer Micahel Jamin does monthly tiktoks breaking down how much he makes from his syndicated episodes of TV, with total payouts that range from a few hundred dollars to multiple thousands depending on what show he wrote for. Sure, he might get paid less than $2 for an episode of Rules of Engagement every once in a while, but it’s a consistent income that is supplemented by all of the other residuals he earns, and there isn’t a lot of room for that when to comes to New Media productions.
Not only is the base compensation less, the lower episode count means that there are fewer spaces in the writers rooms and fewer “written by” credits to be earned. Shrinking writers rooms leave a lack of space for newer writers as well, so not only is there a deficit in pay coming from the streaming boom, there is a deficit in new voices as well. We might be in an era of Peak TV, but the most popular shows aren’t giving us seasons longer than 10 episodes, and in extreme cases like Euphoria, only one person is writing every episode. Even with over 500 shows on the air, there is just less work to go around, and while a veteran screenwriter might not be hit too hard, the people who are the future of the industry will be.
Another thing to consider is the HBO Max bloodbath set off by David Zaslav at the end of 2022, a move that essentially stripped entire teams of writers of their potential residual income. While consumers were faced with the reality that their favorite shows were being disappeared for the sake of offsetting the multi-billion dollar debt Warner Bros. Discovery was dealing with, writers realized that streaming platforms were not a place where an original series could air in perpetuity. Theoretically, a show canceled after one season on a streaming platform would still earn residuals for a writing team, but a show that isn’t streaming anywhere or airing linearly isn’t entitled to anything, and WBD’s elimination of their own content only makes the new landscape of TV even dicier.
Whether or not the WGA does end up going on strike in May is far from being determined, but it is clear that there has to be reform when it comes to how writers are paid for their work for streaming platforms. Sure, there are plenty of huge shows where people don’t feel the financial hit of the minimum payment requirements, but there are a lot more people who do feel that hit in the industry, and without change that group of people will only get smaller. A new contract isn’t going to do much for showrunners with huge production deals like Shonda Rhimes or Ryan Murphy, but the WGA fights for every writer who is a part of it. Back in 2007, USA Today interviewed people on the picket line for the WGA strike in New York. Celebrities like Robin Williams and America Ferrera were there, but writer Tim Robbins said that, “This [strike] is not about millionaire screenwriters. This is about middle-class writers trying to support a family and make mortgage payments,” and without any improvement in the upcoming contract, a strike is the only way to make sure those people can continue to make a living creating the things we all know and love.
Kathryn Porter is a freelance writer who will talk endlessly about anything entertainment given the chance. You can find her @kaechops on Twitter.
For all the latest TV news, reviews, lists and features, follow @Paste_TV.