Today I voted to authorize the leaders of my union to call a strike that I desperately don’t want. The result of the vote will be announced Monday, but the outcome was never in doubt: Hollywood writers will give our negotiators the power to call a second strike in ten years if they can’t agree on a new deal with producers before the Writers Guild of America contract expires May 1.
I’ve gone on strike twice. During the last one, in 2007 and 2008, my wife and I — like so many other writers — were both fired. In our community, the financial and emotional scars remain fresh, which is why no one I know wants a work stoppage, including our negotiating team, who are thoughtful, restrained and reasonable. Too reasonable, in my view. I’m sure the producers think the guild is asking for too much. I think they’re asking for too little.
Thanks to the Clinton administration, wages paid to Hollywood writers have been stagnant for a generation. Bill Clinton overturned rules preventing studios from owning TV networks. The rules promoted competition by preventing vertical integration. As soon as they were gone, the studios gobbled up the networks, killing independent production companies that competed for writers. Corporate consolidation has been great for corporate profits — the six major conglomerates reported $51 billion in profits in 2016 — but no so great for labor. In the past two years, the average salary for a TV writer-producer has declined 23%, according to the WGA.
If wages have been stagnant, what accounts for the staggering decline in salaries? The advent of the 12-episode season. In the old days — all of five years ago — most shows produced 22 episodes a year. Now, as many or more, including everything on cable and streaming services, make 12 episodes or fewer. TV writers are paid per episode. Fewer episodes mean fewer paydays. Wage stagnation was a tolerable frustration in the days of 22-episode seasons. In a world with half as many, it’s a recipe for financial disaster.
To combat this, the guild wants producers to agree to make 12 episodes fast enough so that writers could conceivably work on two short-order series in the same year. This is a great idea as far as it goes — but it doesn’t go far enough. Some writers may find a second show. Most probably won’t. And the ones who do: Won’t they simply be taking jobs away from other writers, who will make even less? The only way to improve everyone’s financial prospects is to demand salary increases.
Here are two ways the guild could do that. First, set salary minimums. There are eight levels on every writing staff in TV, from staff writer up to executive producer. The guild should demand a minimum salary for each position. Agents negotiate an individual writer’s contracts, but they have proved unable or unwilling to combat stagnant wages on a case-by-case basis. The guild could go a long way toward solving the problem by setting floors across the board.
Second, allocate a percentage of a show’s episodic budget for writers. As I recollect, the first show I worked on cost about $2 million per episode to make. Of this, about $200,000 went to writers. That’s 10%. Today, a show that costs $4 million an episode may have a writer’s budget of $300,000. Under 8%. Tying the writer’s budget to the overall budget will reverse this trend.
Soaring corporate profits. Declining compensation for the labor that makes those profits possible. Management demands to roll back health coverage (yes, that’s on the table). Sound familiar? It should. The labor-management relations in our business reflect what’s happening nationwide. A lot of people mock Hollywood for being too, well, Hollywood, but this is not a cat fight between one-percenters. According to the WGA, the average TV writer made $250,000 last year. Sounds great, but take away 23% every other year, and in a decade, it won’t be. The only obvious way in which our situation is unique is that, so far, robots cannot do our jobs. If producers could replace us with an algorithm, they would.
Everything in our business starts with writers. Every character you love, every story that moves you, a writer dreamed it up. I’m as much in awe of what my colleagues do today as I was when I started 30 years ago — including their willingness to strike to get a deal they believe in. I just wish they believed in one that increased our wages.
John Eisendrath, a television writer, is the executive producer of “The Blacklist.”