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It's The Age Of Peak TV, Yet Screenwriters And Their Agents Are Fighting


For TV, these are boom times. Last year, there were more than 500 scripted TV shows produced in the U.S., more than ever before. But there's also an ongoing battle over how TV profits are divvied up between the screenwriters, who come up with the shows, and their talent agents. The writers say those talent agents have been taking more than their fair share of the money. As Alexi Horowitz-Ghazi from NPR's Planet Money podcast reports, it comes down to how talent agents get paid.

ALEXI HOROWITZ-GHAZI, BYLINE: As far as TV writers go, David Simon is doing all right for himself as the man behind hit shows like "The Wire" and "The Deuce." But he says that is not the case across the board.

DAVID SIMON: Even in this time of peak TV, where the hunger for content is the highest it's ever been, writers are not making any more money. In fact, in some categories, they're making less because the agents aren't fighting for them.

HOROWITZ-GHAZI: Traditionally, agents in Hollywood have gotten paid by commission - 10% of whatever salary they're able to negotiate for their screenwriter clients. So the better the clients are paid, the better off they are. And that's how Simon thought it worked when he started in TV in the early '90s.

SIMON: But in the beginning, I was a naif.

HOROWITZ-GHAZI: A naif, or naive person, Simon says, because things were changing in the agency business. Since the mid-'70s, the big agencies had come to rely less and less on commission and more and more on a practice known as packaging. That's when a talent agency combines a group of clients on a project. A writer, maybe an actor or director takes that whole bundle to a studio and pitches them together. Instead of taking that commission from their clients, the agencies get paid in packaging fees from the studio and a cut of any profits. So, the agencies argue, everyone's better off.

But when David Simon found out about this, he saw a conflict of interest because the agency was now dependent on successfully selling a whole package, no matter what the writer was paid.

SIMON: How do I get the better deal on that? How do I get anybody fighting for me when they're representing themselves? They're on their own side.

HOROWITZ-GHAZI: Then, Simon says, over several decades, that divergence of interests has stifled wages across his profession - so much that finally, in 2018, the Writers Guild of America, the union that represents screenwriters, decided to fight it.

SIMON: This thing was effectively reducing the salaries of every single writer in Hollywood.

HOROWITZ-GHAZI: If the talent agencies wouldn't agree to new terms and an end to packaging fees, the union threatened a nuclear option - the screenwriters would fire all of their agents all at once.

SIMON: It's about the future of my industry and the status of writers within that industry.

HOROWITZ-GHAZI: So - and you may have heard about this - when the deadline finally came last April with no agreement in sight, the Writers Guild of America delivered some 7,000 notices of termination to the agencies on behalf of its members.

Representatives of the four big Hollywood talent agencies declined to comment for this story. But longtime former agent Marc Pariser says things have gotten way overblown. He says even when agencies do package their clients, they're still operating in good faith for everyone in the package, even if the writers don't see it that way.

MARC PARISER: They have this kind of Dickensian attitude about agents - that we're all ogres that are all about something other than our clients. It's just not true.

HOROWITZ-GHAZI: Since the mass firing in April, the Writers Guild and the big Hollywood agencies have been embroiled in a string of back-and-forth lawsuits, none of which seem likely to end in the short term. In the meantime, TV producers have found ways to staff their writers rooms without the big agencies, meaning the rest of us probably aren't in danger of running out of shows to binge to anytime soon.

Alexi Horowitz-Ghazi, NPR News. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Alexi Horowitz-Ghazi is a host and reporter for Planet Money, telling stories that creatively explore and explain the workings of the global economy. He's a sucker for a good supply chain mystery — from toilet paper to foster puppies to specialty pastas. He's drawn to tales of unintended consequences, like the time a well-intentioned chemistry professor unwittingly helped unleash a global market for synthetic drugs, or what happened when the U.S. Patent Office started granting patents on human genes. And he's always on the lookout for economic principles at work in unexpected places, like the tactics comedians use to protect their intellectual property (a.k.a. jokes).

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