How Much Does a Television Writer Earn?

As you may know, Hollywood writers from the Writers Guild of America are on strike, seeking a larger cut of DVD and Internet-based revenue from their employers. This video apparently summarizes their predicament.

I’m pretty ambivalent about this labour action. I’m at least a year behind in my TV watching, and the writers are hardly Polish steelworkers. But I did wonder–how much do TV writers earn?

I know nothing about television writers’ compensation, so I’ll just report what I could find on the Writer’s Guild of America website. On that site, I found a 2004 Schedule of Minimums, which describes (as you might expect), the minimum compensation for various types of projects. There’s some industry specific language there that I don’t fully understand. If anybody works in the industry, please let me know where I’ve gone wrong.

Grey’s Anatomy and Soap Operas

Krista Vernoff is a writer and producer on “Gray’s Anatomy”. I picked Ms. Vernoff because I saw a video featuring some “Grey’s Anatomy” actors striking in solidarity. She’s got a lot of producer credits, but in season two she’s credited with writing three episodes.

Assuming Ms. Vernoff wrote both the story and the teleplay for each episode, she’d earn a minimum of US $30,823 per episode, or about US US $92,500 for the three she wrote. This has nothing to do with the popularity of “Grey’s Anatomy”–these are standard minimums for writing sixty minutes or less of network prime time TV. Maybe there are bonuses or premiums for working on popular shows? I assume that Ms. Vernoff was also compensated for all those episodes in which she’s credited as supervising or executive producer. It’s unclear what that work is worth.

According to the aforementioned video, Ms. Vernoff also earns four cents for every “Grey’s Anatomy” DVD that’s sold. Is that four cents or 3/22 of four cents? I’m not sure, but there’s some additional money to be made there.

Network prime time television is pretty splashy, admittedly. What about somebody who’s slaving away for a daytime soap opera or so-called “strip program”? If you’re the head writer on an hour-long soap opera, you earn US $31,879 a week, minimum. If you’re a contributing writer on a soap opera, you earn a ‘script fee’ of US $3,087 per script.

They’re Making Out Okay

I may have this all wrong, but it looks to me like television writing pays pretty well. That video claims that, at any given time, 48% of writers are out of work. I’d be curious how they arrive at that figure, but it’s not surprising. If you’re a freelance writer and not currently writing something, then do you qualify as unemployed?

The video also makes much of the threat to writers losing their houses, health insurance and not being able to support their families. If those wages are at all accurate, I wonder how dire the threat to their hearth and home is? If they’re not, I’d love for one of the writers of the United Hollywood blog to clarify some typical TV writer compensation.


  1. I think Whedon said it best:
    “…when it comes to the internet and the emerging media there’s nothing there for the artists. There’s no precedent; these media didn’t exist the last time a contract was negotiated. We’re not just talking about an unfair deal, we’re talking about no deal at all. Four cents from the sale of a DVD (the standing WGA deal) sounds exactly as paltry as it is, but in a decade DVD may have gone the way of the eight-track.”

    1. please take a moment to think about all the professions that take years of extra school to qualify for. a doctor, atty, etc. don’t get paid so well just for the difficult task they are performing at the moment, it is(should) be for the hard work it took to get there.
      For Actors, writers, directors, etc. The task itself is tough (we don’t see it because the only side we read is the lavish vacations on TMZ), but more then just the immediate work, its the years and years of waiting on tables, sleeping in your car, endless auditions, etc. etc. etc. It’s all the years of people thinking you were a nut case standing on the street rehearsing your lines before you go in for an audition or the years of writing till 3AM while the rest of civilization is out on the town having a beer and watching the “big game”. Writers invent, if it was a product, they would have it patented and get a higher percentage of each sale then they do now. And don’t forget about all the extra cost of famous living.
      And Finally, they HAVE to make enough for the rest of their lives, because; could you imagine Leonardo DiCaprio working at Starbucks after 30 years of acting? They sacrifice the rest of their lives for the roles they play or projects they write.

  2. First, I think you have to factor in the consistency of work, that $92K you made this year might be the only substantial work you see for five year or more. Doesn’t seem as lucrative then. Plus, let’s also factor in the extreme cost of living of working in LA or NY, where most production occurs. And you quoted the network rates, who knows what the cable guys pay.

    Remember, a writers strike is not about Aaron Sorkin, just like and Actors strike is not about George Clooney. It’s about the great masses of barely working writers, who live feast or famine and depend on their mere membership in the guild for benefits. Lot’s of cats may have WGA healtch coverage, but work nights at Home Depot, or driving a cab.

  3. Here’s another perspective.

    I think the misconception is that STAFF writers get to write that many episodes as well. But the producers have their hands deep into the episodes, and they often write them, like Krista Vernoff. A staff writer might get one or two episodes per year, maybe three, but there are other factors. Sometimes, they work together, and the money is shared; sometimes, they may not get to write all aspects (teleplay, story, etc.). The numbers above are inflated, and they don’t consider all the issues. Another important issue is that TV shows can be cancelled very quickly/easily, and the majority of them don’t make it past the first or second season; thus the writer who finally made it into the business is forced to prove him or herself again, which may take another season or two. During this time, he/she has to live off of residuals while trying to write new specs and perhaps even pilots.

  4. I think the other thing that no one is considering is the amount of money a show like Grey’s Anatomy brings in. if the show is makes around 5 million per episode, it seems a little odd that the person that wrote the episode, would get a mere $32,000 and never see hardly any of the benefits of it being a hit.
    When you break down the money made from a $40 DVD sale it looks like this: 12 cents for actors, 4 cents for writers, 8 cents for directors, and the whole things costs less than 2.00 to make the whole thing.
    Which means that producers pocket the rest of the money.
    So asking for just producers to cut writers a share of “new media” doesn’t seem like its a large strain on the producers considering the amount of money that they make already.

    Don’t judge this strike souly on how much a typical writer already makes, but how much they make in comparison of the other players in the industry.

  5. Roger: I come late to this, but how are my numbers inflated? They come from the Writer’s Guild of America website. If you’ve got more accurate information, I’d love to hear it.

  6. I am all for everyone making as much money as possible,I make roughly 42k a year. What puzzles me is that in one of the examples the writer makes twice what I make for three episodes, and I work for a natural gas company and am in harms way several times a year. My point is that if it were the utility worker on strike, everyone would be moaning and and groaning that we make too much money. More than likely, if we would strike not many people would even know. I am not,but the Writers are probably for universal health care as well.

  7. I used to feel sorry for the writers, now I feel nothing. The so called writers need to get real and get in touch with the rest of America, the average american who makes mimimum wage. They struggle to make ends meet. Now even more americans are having problem with money. There is mortage crisis, along with property taxes going up, insurance companies raising their rates, the cost of gas going up, which we all need to get to work and, I could go on, but you all get it. I think any one of them would be willing to make $92,000 for three days work. I know I would. So networks call me, I will do it.

    1. it’s not three days work. You have no idea how long it took the writer to write that episode. And even if a writer does earn say $100,000 for something, ideas are not unlimited, who knows if he or she will even work again. Also remember these people worked hard and sacrificed a lot in most cases to get to where they are.

  8. Tina: you clearly haven’t been paying attention. The argument that regular people make less so the writers don’t deserve to make more is ridiculous. The example above is of a working writer on a long running show. The producers not only make money off of the initial production, but they make money every time it’s shown. This is all about the long term. It’s not crazy to think that in 5 or 10 years most of our entertainment will be coming from the internet, and it would be really sad if a former writer from a canceled television show can’t support themselves because Tina from random blog wants to see the next episode of Gossip Girl now, instead of later. I also find it hilarious that you assume that writing three episodes of a television show only takes three days. Staff writers also help with a lot of other aspects of production and the actual breaking of story lines in television is usually collaborative. Furthermore you ignore the fact that this money is going to be made no matter what, and I for one would rather have the writers have a larger stake in it.

  9. I think the producer shoud move the sets to Canada, hire new writers and start shooting the shows from over there. that will show the writers to be glad they had a good job that paid more than avarage.
    Plus it’s sad that they are trying to get our sympathy when they make more money than most of us.
    again move the sets to Canada and start shooting our favorites shows

  10. Everyone should go back to being on the clock.
    The writers gambled that they could make more money this way than being on a punch clock. So they have to live with it. Hey Jimmy, wouldn’t you love it, if every time the utility you worked for ‘provided its service or signed a new customer’ you got an additional $5 bucks?! If my co. payed me for 4¢ for 1,000,000 catalogs printed, that’s $40,000!!!
    If they are out of work, there is ALWAYS jobs listed in the help wanted, not to mention all of the online Job search engines!!!

    True, the Studios may a lot of money, and they have to stop being greedy too! Sell DVDs for $5 and you’ll also solve half of your pirated material (sold $5 on the street). There are those who will never pay for the material, so forget it!!! Money that was never in you pocket, was never yours to lose!! You are paid to provide a service, so where is my favorite TV show? No staff? Hire a new staff!

  11. You people are all so ignorant, don’t you realise that your just parroting the words of the network news shows that the writers are striking from.

    The fact is all of these people directly contribute to the shows popularity. They are the ones who make it your favorite. If it was as easy as just hiring a new staff they would of done that at the start.

    The writers simply wanted a cut of what is rightfully their own.

    Also I noticed a simalarity between salary and occupation and the stance on the writers strike.

    And seriously, as if it takes a writer a day to produce a programme Tina, why don’t you produce one in a day, show the networks, and then maybe give them a call.

    Veiwership of these programs often reaches 20,000,000 people, that means that for everyone watching, the writers get less than a eighth of a cent.

  12. Hrm…well I think everyone has left this thread by now, but anyhoo I’ll give you my thoughts. Firstly, the entertainment industry seems to be a dangerous place to be and I do feel bad for the writers there because in the first place it’s not conceivable to me why actors are paid so much when it is the writer who concepts the story and its characters. The actor’s job is rendered virtually meaningless if not for the writer. Even for films, the pay for some of the top actors is absolutely ridiculous. It is one of the great injustices of the world is it not? Seriously, every time I hear of the some of the figures these people make, I think what a strange world it is!

    That said, I’m afraid I also have to say, that when one goes into the entertainment industry willingly, he or she should expect this injustice and volatility and an even greater income variability than one sees in the general population. That is the nature of the industry and for all of the great writers out there who are struggling in Hollywood, I would just say to you, that there are so many more fruitful ways to utilise your talents in this world. Work as a content administrator, a copywriter, a technical, science, or health writer for a company, and your talent will surely be appreciated. I’ve just named a few – there are so many more. And these jobs are not void of creativity as many would have you believe. Sure it’s fun and perhaps very fulfilling personally to craft stories that will reach and perhaps heavily influence audiences, and I certainly don’t mean to put down anyone’s dream, but personally, I would never go near an industry that is so susceptible to the whims of another, certainly not those of a greedy producer. I want to see the efforts of my work on the organization I work with, and I want to see that my writing makes some tangible difference, and I just imagine that there are many writers in Hollywood whose talent is never utilised. But that is the choice they have made. You cannot always bring about the change you want, but I certainly do applaud their effort. Ok, that’s all I have to say.

  13. Sorry for the change in topic on this somewhat outdated post, but I’ve been curious about what an _actor_ would usually earn per episode of your main street tv show (heroes, battlestar galactica, dexter, terminator – you name it). Anyone having an idea?

    The occasion for this question is that I’ve recently read a post of Jack Coleman (Noah Bennet in Heroes) in a blog, where he is stating about the situation of the actors in that show that “It’s an ensemble, which means you don’t have to work every day. An ensemble also means you do not make as much money (do I hear violins?).”

    So how much DO they make (ensemble or otherwise)?

  14. This is ridiculous. The problem at the time is that someone was earning that money and it wasn’t the people that deserved it. Would you rather the money go to the studio heads or the people who actually create the show? Do people still not understand how labor works in this country?!?!?

  15. wow,im sure nobody exacktli reads this,but … all are so stuck on stupid.well,i guess is hosuldn’t say that–srry.what i mean,is…you’re all just so…idk…not thankful?you should all be thankful to the WHOLE entertainment system,they’re the ones who are keeping you entertained enough to even be writing tthese comments?i mean–without any of the writers,staff,anything like that…you guys wouldn’t have anything to talk to your little buddies about,and you sure as hell would be bored out of your minds.not to mention the amount of money that shows make worldwide to bring to the US.i know im grateful.people in other third-world countries have no entertainment,no nothing,and you guys are all sitting on your laptops,phones,computers,ETC. talking about this?really?i guess i have no room to talk,im doing the same,but atleast i can acknowledge the simple fact that at this moment,i kould be either helping out those countries,or be starcving,bored,lonely,and scared for my life in those third-world countries.
    this post of mine may be a little off topic,but-had to say it…idk…mayb its cuase i too am a writer…idk.

  16. and about all the spelling mistakes on the comment of mine above – srry,i was ranting on and thinking to fast for my typing,my apologies.

  17. Now I understand that this is a truly old blog post but like Anna Paquin said in that old MCI commercial, with the internet, “there is no when”.

    So, I work int he tv industry and I find it strange that today people still seem rather clueless about what a tv show writer actually does.

    If you have seen actual working writers of television shows, you would quickly lose any notion that they are overpaid.

    It is a tough business and many, many days and hours are worked before you actually write your episode.

    Your fee for “your episode” actually includes all of the meetings and pitches and notes from the networks and the rewrites and more notes…more rewrites..more inputs from directors, actors etc…

    Writing the actual episode is almost like executing the plan.

    You are not just getting paid for those 55 or so pages….its all the stuff you had to do BEFORE you write it too.

    So don’t hate – CREATE!

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