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READER QUESTION: How Are TV Writers Paid?

Categories: Career Advice, Reader Questions, Writing Advice, Writing TV.
Hey, screenwriters—

Today’s question comes from Dan, who comments at the end of Friday’s post in reference to something I had written about writing on TV shows.  I had written…

“You might be hired [on a TV show] for 10 weeks… or 6 months… or even just one episode.  It varies from show to show (not to get too technical, but the amount of time you’re hired for usually depends on how many episodes the show expects you to work on).”

And Dan asks

“I understand TV writers get paid per episode they write (usually 2 a season, no?). Do they also get paid week-to-week for time spent in the writer’s room breaking stories and punching up the other writer’s drafts?”

Well, Dan, you are exactly right… kind of.  How TV writers get paid is a pretty complicated arrangement, but here goes…

First of all, when it comes to getting paid, TV writers are divided into two categories: staff writers, or entry-level, bottom-rung writers… and everyone else above them.  Let’s look first at everyone else above them…

WRITERS ABOVE STAFF-WRITER LEVEL

First of all, most TV writers’ compensation is regulated by the Writers Guild of America, which establishes minimum payments that a writer must be paid.  These minimums go up each year.  Right now, for instance, the minimum payment for writing one episode of a half-hour TV show on a broadcast network (ABC, CBS, NBC, FOX) is $21,585.  The minimum for an hour-long show is $31,748.

When a TV writer is hired onto a show’s staff, he/she is contracted to work on a certain number of episodes.  But he/she is also contracted for a certain number of week (usually 6, 14, or 20), so the studio can’t bind you to 6 episodes of some show, then drag them out over two years.

Thus, the WGA also establishes minimum weekly payments.  Right now, for example, the weekly minimum for 6-week hire is $3,817, and the minimum decreases if the writer is hired for more weeks.  So the weekly minimum for a 14-week hire is $3,548.  The weekly minimum for 20 weeks is $3,272.  So the more work a writer is guaranteed, the less the studio pays.

HOWEVER… even though a writer is contracted to work on a specific number of episodes over a certain number of weeks, his weekly average can never sink below the WGA’s weekly minimum.  In other words, he can’t be given a 14-week contract to write one episode of a half-hour sitcom, at the minimum rate of $21,585, because that would make his weekly payment only $1,542… far below the WGA’s 14-week minimum of $3,548/week.

(Which is why, when writers/agents/execs negotiate a writers salary, they often speak in terms of what the writer makes per week.)

Still with me?  Good.  And if you’re not—don’t worry.  I’m pretty confused myself right now.  Which is we’re writers, not accountants.  But hold on, because things are about to get even MORE tricky…  

You know all that “writing” a writer is contracted to do?… IT DOESN’T  INCLUDE WRITING AN ACTUAL SCRIPT.  This is because most mid to upper-level writers are considered “writer-producers,” and their base salary is considered payment for OTHER writing-related duties… beating out stories, fleshing out characters, rewriting other scripts, etc.

So when a salaried writer does write an actual script, he gets paid an additional “script fee” ON TOP of his weekly salary.  In other words, let’s say you get staffed on How I Met Your Mother at $5,000/week for 20 weeks.  That’s $100,000.  BUT… when you write your first script, you get paid another $21,585 (at least; remember—it’s only the WGA’s minimum).  Which means if you write two scripts over the course of the season, your total take-home pay for the 20 weeks is $143,170 ($100,000 + $21,585 + $21,585).  (Of course, you’ll have to pay your agent, your lawyer, taxes, etc.)

Got all that?  Good.  Now let’s look at…

HOW STAFF WRITERS GET PAID

Unlike everyone else on the writing staff, “staff writers,” the writing staff’s lowest level writers, are not considered “writer-producers.”  They are pure writers.  This results in two main differences in their payment plans:

1)  Staff writers are not guaranteed a certain number of episodes, so they’re only paid a weekly salary, which is usually the WGA’s week-to-week payment.  So if a staff writer is hired for 14 weeks on How I Met Your Mother, he’s probably paid nothing more than the WGA minimum of $3,548/week… for a total of $49,672.

2)  Staff writers do not get paid script fees on top of their weekly salaries.  So if that same staff writer is hired to write on How I Met Your Mother, at $3,548/week for 14 weeks, and he writes two episodes on his own… HE DOESN’T MAKE ANOTHER DIME.  An upper level writer, however, would’ve made an additional $43,170 in “script fees,” because script-writing is considered to be in addition to his salaried “writer-producer” duties; but with staff writers, their salaries go against their script fees.

(A staff writer would, however, get paid extra money if he wrote three episodes… because the combined script fees for three half-hour episodes would be $64,755, which comes out to $4,625/week.  And since a writer with a 14-week contract must make at least $3,548/week, he’d probably get another $15,083 so he’s making the mandated minimum. However, staff writers almost NEVER write three episodes… or even two.  Many don’t even write one.)

Having said all this, it’s almost important to know that most writers are rarely guaranteed a certain numbers scripts they’ll actually get to write.  So when a contract has a “13 episode guarantee,” that simply means the studio promises to pay the writer his their weekly salary equivalent to 13 produced episodes.  It doesn’t guarantee he’ll get to write thirteen… or even one.  I’ve known shows where a sinly writer wrote five or six episodes… or more.  I’ve also known shows where specific writers—usually lower-level newbies—didn’t write a single episode.

Anyway, Dan—I hope this helps.   But if it hasn’t… if it’s left you more confused than you were before… then, well, welcome to Hollywood.

If anyone else has questions they’d like me to confuse them about, feel free to write me at WDScriptNotes@FWPubs.com.  

Until next time…

Chad

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One Response to READER QUESTION: How Are TV Writers Paid?

  1. Dan says:

    Excellent Post! That cleared up a lot. I’m now only about 20% confused about writer’s salaries, which is good compared to my previous 80% confusion.

    Thanks for taking the time to explain that- I really appreciate it!

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