Writing for TV is nothing like you (probably) thought
Leaving aside one-in-a-million star showrunners like Shonda Rhimes and Ryan Murphy, it might seem that even the average TV writer is living the dream, getting paid to create stories watched by millions of people, in a star-studded industry that earns billions of dollars annually.
It might even look that way on paper, with the lowest-paid TV writers in the union earning at least $4,154 per week of work.
But TV writing is competitive and brutally unpredictable, with seasons shrinking and shows often canceled on short notice. Many writers say their paychecks get stretched very thin between lean times.
“Before I got this job as showrunner’s assistant … I had gone through a period of unemployment for three or four months, and I was feeling very demoralized,” said Lindsay Grossman, who was on set for the “Motherland” reboot. “I’ve been trying at this for a long time and for it to be that difficult to find a job 10 years in, it’s a hard pill to swallow.”
Back when network television reigned supreme, a typical 22-episode season of, say, “Seinfeld,” could employ a writer for 40 weeks or more. But in the streaming era, many seasons have shrunk to 12, eight or even fewer episodes. According to the WGA, a typical writing job for a streaming service lasts about 14 weeks. That means fewer weeks of pay.
But in an era of complex plot arcs and high production quality, writers say it takes roughly the same amount of work to shoot shorter TV shows as their longer predecessors, leaving a handful of writers with a more grueling workload.
“I just worked seven days a week, 13 to 14 hour days, for three months to make an eight-episode order,” said Danielle Sanchez-Witzel, a showrunner who’s worked on network shows such as “New Girl,” “My Name is Earl” and “The Carmichael Show,” and is also on the WGA committee negotiating with studios for a new union contract. “Me and one other writer worked those hours. It’s exhausting. It’s unsustainable.”
Writers can try to work on multiple shows in a year to balance out the shorter gigs, but many complain that studios are hesitant to hire someone with overlapping commitments, while some simply forbid moonlighting within Hollywood.
There’s also the matter of shrinking residuals — the percentage of profits some writers get each time their show is re-aired or licensed. The exact formulas for these are complex, but the WGA says that generally, the residuals from streaming platforms are far lower than those from network TV.
Ultimately, many writers are forced to work jobs outside the industry to make ends meet, or let their careers stagnate by repeatedly accepting jobs at the same pay rate.