Deep Soap: Why ABC and The Writers Guild May Go To War

by | July 17, 2010 at 8:41 AM | Deep Soap

Twenty fewer episodes a year could add up to nearly 100 fewer bullets fired on 'General Hospital' (ABC)

Twenty fewer episodes a year could add up to nearly 100 fewer bullets fired on 'General Hospital' (ABC)

Daytime is once again the canary in the coal mine for the rest of the entertainment industry.

ABC has asked the Writers Guild of America for a waiver that will allow the network to override current soap opera writer contracts and cut the number of scripts each writer is guaranteed. The network has asked the WGA to make its decision in August, and writers for ‘All My Children‘, ‘One Life To Live‘ and ‘General Hospital‘ will be impacted.

According to Daytime Confidential, the website that broke the story, ABC aims to shoot 20 fewer episodes of each of their soaps every year. Ergo, fewer scripts are needed. If the Writer’s Guild refuses to grant the contractual waiver, the network is threatening to fire writers from each show. Their article lays out the issue:

“ABC sees this as something that will help to keep the soaps on the air,” says a source. “People are really split. Some feel like, ‘Hey, whatever. Do what you need to do to keep all three soaps on the air,’ while others are ticked off.”

There is another larger issue that could have ripple effects throughout the entertainment industry: If the guild agrees to the waiver, it has set the precedent that networks have the right to alter the terms of existing contracts in any medium. If the writers agree to it, the actors, directors and craft unions could someday be pressured to agree to do the same thing.

It’s a confusing issue. Nobody wants to see their salary cut, but nobody wants to be fired – or see a coworker lose a job. Twenty episodes is the equivalent of about a month of work in daytime. If you assume that a show has five dialogue writers and five breakdown writers (each of whom write an episode a week), each writer would write four fewer episodes a year. Assuming all of the writers are paid scale (which, given all of the pay cuts writers have experienced over the past few years is increasingly plausible) each dialogue writer’s salary will be cut by $13,492 and each breakdown writer’s annual paycheck will shrink $7,712. The headwriters, who are paid about ten times as much as the lower tier writers, will likely not suffer a pay cut because they are on a flat weekly salary.

Though daytime writers make really good money – I considered myself wealthy when I was writing for soaps – they make far less (typically in the low six figures) than primetime writers. It’s a lot more than school teachers make, but less than first year associates at a big law firm. Also: ten percent of writers’ pre-tax income goes to their agents, and another 1.5% goes to the WGA. Soap writers are also paid differently from primetime writers, in that they are paid by the script. A writer who does not turn in an episode in a given week does not earn any money that week. That’s the purpose of the contractual guarantee, which typically guarantees that a writer will be given one episode a week or average one script a week over their contract cycle. If for some reason they do not get an episode, they still get paid. (It sometimes works out that a writer will write a total of 13 episodes in a 13-week cycle, but one week will write two, and the next none.)

In primetime, though, writers are paid a weekly salary simply for being on staff, which can entail everything from pitching ideas to helping other writers polish their scripts to overseeing production and editing of episodes that they write. Depending on their title and experience and whether they are working for a cable or network show, they can earn anything from about three to over $10,000 a week. (Flip side: Primetime writers do not work 52 weeks a year and can be out of a job right away if their new series gets canceled after a couple episodes.) In addition, they are paid for each script that they write. The scale for a primetime drama script, depending on the budget and network, ranges from $18,000 to $33,000. Even if a primetime writer loses the opportunity to write an episode, he or she is still taking home as much pay as most daytime writers.

I am conflicted about this issue. On one hand, I do not want to see any more daytime writers lose their jobs. While the salary cuts will hurt, they are not going to send anybody to a soup kitchen. On the other, I hate the idea of networks and studios getting the right to nullify contracts at will. It’s as unfair as it would be in any other profession. In this case, it’s also unnecessary. There is no reason why the number of episodes written needs to conform to the number of episodes aired. There are plenty of weeks when staffs write six scripts in five days to get ahead so the show can take a Christmas hiatus. ABC could honor the terms of the current writers’ contracts, and stockpile some extra scripts, which will make the show’s producers and directors very happy. When the writers’ contracts expire, ABC can renegotiate to reflect the fewer episodes that will be shot. The writer will have the choice whether to agree to a waiver and work without a guarantee, or leave the show. It would be fair, would not cost ABC any additional money since their current payroll would not change, and would not put the network in the position of paying writers the same amount for less work. It’s simple, it’s logical, but, since this is daytime, it probably does not have any chance of happening.