Media Circus: gabillions and kazillions

The small screen equals big bucks for the writers and producers behind hit TV programs.

Published October 29, 1997 8:00PM (EST)

It began with a stunt that the cast of "Friends" pulled: Give us a $60,000-per-episode raise, or we walk out en masse. Then word got out that the co-stars of NBC's "Seinfeld" were seeking a salary increase that would bring their salaries to $1 million an episode -- roughly what Jerry Seinfeld, the show's star, co-creator and executive producer, currently makes. (They finally settled for $600,000 per episode in a ninth-inning upset.) And just two weeks ago, ABC announced it would pay Tim Allen, star of the sitcom "Home Improvement," $1.25 million an episode next year. Now, industry analysts say, "salary envy" threatens to sweep the entire television industry.

It's rare for television actors to make it to the million-dollar mark -- most make between $7,500 and $25,000 per episode on a prime time network series. And it seems strange that salary inflation should be reaching unprecedented proportions now, as television ratings continue to decline and the costs of producing a network program are at an all-time high. But when you consider that advertisers are willing to pay as much as $500,000 for a 30-second spot during NBC's Thursday-night lineup -- which reaches an estimated 30 million viewers -- pulling in $1 million per episode doesn't seem so outrageous after all. At least it doesn't to the writers and producers who, recognizing that these days it's television, not film, that drives the Hollywood economy, hope to cash in as well.

Going public with salary demands might have worked for the cast of "Seinfeld," but those working behind the scenes are reluctant to the point of paranoia to reveal their incomes. (Seven out of eight people interviewed for this article spoke only on the condition of anonymity.) In the cutthroat climate of Hollywood dealmaking, where the operating principle seems to be more-for-you-is-less-for-me, to reveal your salary is to risk alienating colleagues -- or worse, admitting that you don't know what you're really worth.

"Once you live here, what's 'an incredible amount of money' changes," says Jeff, a Los Angeles writer who has written for several cable and network programs. "As soon as you move here, you make 10 times what you were making before -- and from there it continues to go up. That's why everybody's here. Everybody's here to make dough."

That may be so, but few admit it so readily. Christopher, a 29-year-old producer, insists that money is only one reason why creative people work in television, not the reason. Still, he says his standards have risen since he started working in Tinseltown five years ago. "I don't think $11,000 to $13,000 a week is a shocking amount of money," he says. "I think it's a fair amount. I'm not making what lawyers make."

Nor does he have to do the kind of tedious, labor-intensive work that many lawyers do. Right now, his job involves watching classic television shows like "The Beverly Hillbillies" and "Ozzie and Harriet" and pulling appropriate clips for a cable program.

"I'm sure there are so many people out there saying, 'Oh, I could do that,'" he says. "But it's an acquired skill. It's a mistake to think that because it's enjoyable and because it comes naturally that there's no skill involved."

It's still a far cry from drawing up legal contracts, but the comparison he makes between television and law is a surprisingly apt one. Contrary to the commonplace vision of Hollywood as a place of chance opportunities and overnight success, television networks tend to be very traditional, corporate environments where writers work their way up a strict hierarchy determined largely by experience and the relative success of the show. The starting salary for a staff writer -- an entry-level writing position -- is generally $2,500 a week for 13 episodes. (Most episodes take two weeks to produce.) From staff writer, you move to story editor (still a junior position), then to assistant producer.

"That's basically your first, second and third year," says Leslie, a producer for "NewsRadio." "When you start out as a staff writer, you make shit. When you're a story editor, you're still making shit. You can float from shitty show to canceled shitty show to shitty show for years. But once you make it to co-producer, you're in the money."

Although Leslie wouldn't divulge how much "NewsRadio" producers make annually, she did say that "It's more than my mother made in her entire lifetime." But nobody considers it exorbitant," she added, "because everybody's making it."

Unlike traditional corporate jobs, most network television writing jobs are unionized by the Writers Guild of America (WGA), which guarantees minimum salaries. But there are no salary caps, and top writers on long-running network programs can make staggering sums of money -- hence the terms like "gabillions of dollars" and "he's a kazillionaire" that people interviewed for this article used to express what Hollywood's high rollers earn.

Being a union member doesn't just mean higher salaries. As Christine Schomer, a former researcher for "Late Show With David Letterman," points out, there are other perks as well. "We would go to the Emmys every year, and by WGA contract, the writers would have to fly first class," she said. Although such benefits are considered fair exchange for jobs that are extremely hard to come by and hard to hold on to (unlike most other staff members, writers can be fired, and often are), some union provisions are looked upon as something of a joke -- and are occasionally abused.

For instance, because the union mandates that anyone who appears on a show in any capacity, even if it's just as a stand-in, must be compensated (around $200 for no lines, $300 for under five lines, $500 for five lines or more), there's a pretty substantial incentive for non-acting staff-members to insinuate themselves into sketches. As Schomer recalls from her days at Letterman, there was one particularly egregious example: "Years ago at NBC, this girl on staff was getting married. Every night, they gave her a couple of lines so that she would have to get paid by the union, and they called it her dowry. They kept a tally, and every night it was something different -- by the end, she was doing stunt work."

Once writers make it to the level of producer, salaries tend to increase exponentially; they get paid a salary for each credit they earn on a show. Jerry Seinfeld, who is the executive producer (often the executive producer is the creator, or in this case, the co-creator, of the show), writer and star of "Seinfeld," gets paid essentially three salaries. Add to that the purchasing price of a single script (WGA minimum of $17,000) plus residuals for each repeat airing (usually 100 percent of purchasing price) and you start to see how easy it is to reach "kazillionaire" status.

"That's why you have these 24- and 25-year-old kids running around making $35,000 a week," explained one source from Comedy Central, whose animated hit "Southpark" is written by the show's twentysomething creators, Matt Stone and Trey Parker.

It used to be that television work was considered too low-brow for "real" writers, but today, most TV writers maintain that television writing can be as fulfilling as it is lucrative. And unlike the film industry, where you can work for years on a project that may never grace a screening room, in television you're much more likely to see the fruits of your labor.

"A lot of people really love television because TV gets made instantly -- seven to eight days, that's standard. And it has to get made, because the advertising is already paid for," said one writer.

"Most people I know who do it do it because they genuinely like the medium," says Christopher. "Of course, they work on shows they don't always like, and there are always jobs you take because they are whore jobs. But you end up working just as hard on both."

In an Aug. 26 New York Times article about the unprecedented number of Harvard grads behind so many of today's successful television series, "The Simpsons" consulting producer Bill Oakley was quoted as saying that "I think we'd all be doing this, even if it paid $16,000 a year."

That's hard to believe coming from someone who makes more like $500,000 a year. Still, writers emphasize that television is more writer-friendly than any other medium.

"If you're in journalism, you'd have to write a really good book to make it big," Jeff says. "The same goes for film. But in TV, you can work at it, and just by hanging in there, your price keeps rising. If you're an Ivy League-educated English major, you're going to do well. The writing is not that formidable. It doesn't require that much imagination because it's a form. You learn it, and you get better at it."

If it's so easy, surely there must be some that think they're making too much money?

"Am I making too much money? Not really," Christopher says. "When you consider the overall budget, the salaries of people who are putting the project together really doesn't amount to as big a slice as you think. So, it doesn't seem outrageous. Not to me."

By Cynthia Joyce

Cynthia Joyce has been a writer, editor and Web producer for 20 years. A former Arts and Entertainment editor for Salon, she lives in Oxford, Mississippi, and teaches journalism at the University of Mississippi.

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