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What it means to be a TV writer in 2024

The TV writer path in 2024

The old methods of becoming a TV writer and sustaining a career as a TV writer are changing. Post-streaming and post-WGA strike, the TV writing industry has entered a whole new world. The old ways don't work anymore and it's becoming increasingly obvious to anyone who's charting their path to TV writer-dom that the old rules no longer apply.

Here I want to take a look at what it used to mean to be a TV writer and how good the old guard had it. And then I want to take a look at what the landscape looks like today. Finally, since I don't just want to rant, I want to help, I'm going to get into what this means for you practically as an up-and-coming TV writer.

The Old TV Writer's Career

Pre-streaming TV writers had it good. I mean, real good. Look, it was always a cutthroat business and it was never exactly easy, but you could make sustained money, and a lot of it. Here's how it used to work. Many people rose up as assistants. Shows lasted many many seasons, allowing you time to start as a PA, move up to writers' assistant, maybe a script coordinator job, and then make your way into the writers' room as a staff writer. Maybe the show lasts 7 years. That means you might even be able to rise up as a writer, and become a co-producer, one of the mid-level writer titles.

And each season produced 22-24 episodes, meaning you were working about nine months out of the year. In those three months you had off, you've made enough money to enjoy your bit of unemployment, knowing the huge paychecks will be rolling in again as soon as you return.

On top of that, you're making residuals. Reruns are still a big deal in this time period, and every time your episode that you wrote replays, you're making a shit ton of money. So, even if your show didn't come back and you have a year or two of unemployment, you're actually still enjoying a decent salary collecting those residual checks.

Now, I'm not trying to take away from the effort this older wave of writers (we're talking pre-2010-2014 give or take) had to give to make it to where they were. But when they got there, man, was the gettin' good.

Let's take a look at the landscape for the new TV writer coming in.

The New TV Writer's Career

Those same assistant jobs still exist just as in the old days. But those paths are cut short. You only have a season, maybe at most three, to prove yourself to the writers and those around you. And you have a shorter season to do it. You don't have 22-24 episodes like you used to. You have at most 10. So, the entryway into the writers' room is closing at a rapid pace and it's much harder to get your foot in the door.

But let's say you do get your foot in the door. You're employed as a TV writer on a show. Your job is likely only going to last 2-4 months depending on what network or streamer it's on. They likely won't be filming episodes while you're still on staff, so your period of work is drastically reduced and you're not getting the producing experience that you used to get. So, you're out of a job in much less than half the time you used to be able to enjoy and you're scrounging for the next job.

And to keep you going and the money flowing in between these gigs... well, there's nothing. Residuals have pretty much gone away with the influx of streaming. New residual amounts were negotiated in the newest WGA/AMPTP contract, but it's only a start. The days of being able to live off your residuals are over. Hopefully, they'll be back one of these days.

Basically, more than ever before, TV writers operate in the freelance economy. So, what does this mean for up-and-comers?

TV Writers need to think outside the box

I and most of my colleagues have found that simply TV writing is no longer paying the bills. So, TV writers are being forced to look at TV writing as just one of the ways they're going to make money. Some have part-time work, or work that they'll come back to between gigs. Others have businesses that they run simultaneously.

Personally, during the pandemic, I started a business as a freelance copywriter, which gets me by between gigs. I also got into the publishing world and sold a book.

By thinking of TV writing as just one economic outlet, you are freeing yourself to use your writing to do other things. And you're not limiting yourself to the whims of an industry that is in upheaval and only benefits the select few each year.

This will do two things for you - give you more financial freedom and give you more creative freedom. The financial freedom is obvious, the creative freedom not so much. Say, you're sitting down to write your next script. You are putting all your hope into writing the next great script that gets passed around town, maybe sold, or maybe it lands you a staff writing job on a show and you can finally pay your bills and convince your parents that it actually WAS a good idea to move to LA. That's too much fucking pressure! Having other sources of income alleviates that soul breaking pressure so you can actually enjoy the process.

The baseline advice: look at TV writing as a freelance gig in a freelance economy and don't live and die by it, and you'll be happier, you'll have more freedom, and you'll be more creative.


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I'm Anton, a TV writer and author of Breaking Into TV Writing, a book about the business of TV writing and how to get your foot in the door.


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