Stuart Zicherman knows he has an enviable job as a Hollywood television writer. Right now, he’s working on plot twists for the acclaimed HBO series “Divorce,” starring Sarah Jessica Parker. Last year, he worked on Showtime’s “The Affair.” Before that, he wrote for “The Americans” on cable’s FX.
In this era of what’s being called “Peak TV” — with networks, cable outlets and streaming services such as Netflix making a record number of scripted series each year and demanding creative story lines — Zicherman often feels like there are no limits to imagination or expense.
But Zicherman and many other Hollywood writers are experiencing an unexpected side effect of what has become, for most consumers, a flood of ambitious television: A steep pay cut.
The median pay for television writers has declined 23 percent in the last three years, according to the Writers Guild of America West, one of the unions representing 12,000 Hollywood writers that plan to go on strike as early as midnight Monday if a new contract with the makers of film and TV series is not reached. Late-night talk shows and daytime soap operas would go dark immediately, and other shows could be forced to halt production.
The looming strike shows how the TV content boom — made possible in large part by streaming and other disruptive technology — isn’t always benefiting the people who come up with the ideas behind that content. Studios are producing more TV than ever before, with 500 scripted shows in production this year alone.
But writers are paid per each episode, and popular series such as HBO’s “Game of Thrones” and Netflix’s “Stranger Things” typically produce less than half as many episodes as the typical 22-show-per-season network series, such as CBS’s “The Big Bang Theory.” Zicherman’s current show, “Divorce,” is shooting just eight episodes.
Meanwhile, these shows often take just as long to write and shoot, because — unlike on most network shows — an entire season’s worth of scripts is written before shooting begins. Streaming and cable shows are also not tied to the networks’ strict seasonal schedule, allowing producers to drag out the work. Exclusivity clauses, which prevent workers from immediately hopping to a new project, then make it almost impossible to squeeze more than one writing job into a year. The result is less money.
“Most mid-level and upper-level writers are making significantly less than we were three years ago,” Zicherman said. “It’s a boom time in television and there’s a lot of work out there, but the rules we are working under came from an old system.”
The disconnect illustrates how rapid changes in an industry, often driven by technology, can cause problems for even well-paid workers — the average TV writer made $194,478 in 2015, according to the writers guild. The TV boom has been made possible in large part by the expansion of wireless broadband, the emergence of Internet streaming, and the proliferation of apps and recording devices that allow viewers to watch television where they want it, when they want it. That’s created a market for niche, often short-run television series that catch the attention of viewers who otherwise wouldn’t watch prime-time TV on a consistent basis.
“People think Hollywood lives in a bubble that’s unaffected by everything else,” veteran TV writer John Eisendrath said. “But it’s not. We’re seeing the same thing that’s happening in the broader economy.”
The top of the Hollywood’s income pyramid is doing fine, said Dan Stone, an entertainment attorney in Los Angeles. The industry’s average pay is inflated by massive payouts for superstar writers like Shonda Rhimes of “Scandal” and “Grey’s Anatomy,” writers said.
“I think this is more about the average TV writer. For those people, they feel like it’s getting more difficult to earn a living,” Stone said.
He said he increasingly hears from TV writers worried about the rising cost of living in their popular home bases of Los Angeles and New York.
“A big driver of this is people who worked on TV shows used to know they had enough to live on,” Stone said. “They aren’t in that position anymore.”
The last writers strike occurred a decade ago and lasted roughly 100 days, shutting down a range of television and movie productions. It was a blow to California’s economy, resulting in 37,700 job losses and $2.1 billion in lost output, according to a Milken Institute study.
David Smith, associate professor of economics at Pepperdine Graziadio School of Business and Management, said he thinks a strike this time could be avoided. He pointed to wealthy studios and the relatively modest demands from the unions.
The big six media companies — featuring familiar names like CBS, Viacom and Disney — are doing very well, recording $51 billion in profits last year, the writers guild said. Netflix and Amazon (whose chief executive, Jeffrey P. Bezos, also owns The Washington Post) appear to have open checkbooks when it comes to acquiring shows.
The tension comes from differences in who has adapted better to changes in television production and consumption, Smith said.
“The workers have not been as flexible as the industry changes,” Smith said. “Studios have taken advantage.”
The writers unions are not asking for direct pay raises, beyond modest changes to script fees. Instead, they want commitments to speed up the production schedules of short-order series to more closely mirror the network pace. The unions also want a bigger cut of show residuals and greater employer contributions for worker health-care costs.
The writers unions and the Alliance of Motion Picture and Television Producers declined to comment on this in the midst of negotiations. In what may be a preview of the current negotiations, the studios recently agreed to a new three-year deal with the Directors Guild of America. Although details were not revealed, the directors guild said the agreement increased compensation for its members.
Going to write for movies isn’t a good option for the TV writers. Movie screenwriters have been suffering a tougher time, with fewer Hollywood movies being released each year since 2006 and a greater emphasis on major “tent-pole” movies, which leads to fewer scripts being written.
In television, short-order series now account for almost two-thirds of all series produced, according to the writers guild.
Zicherman’s schedule last year shows the difficulties that current Hollywood writers face. He started writing on “The Affair” in February 2016. It was a 10-episode season. Most cable and streaming shows, such as Zicherman’s, write a season’s worth of scripts before shooting begins, and as a higher-ranking writer-producer, he was expected to stay with the show while the episodes were filmed. That wrapped in December.
“It’s a super-exciting time, but you can’t write on two shows at once,” Zicherman said.