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As an aspiring TV screenwriter, your goal is to write television because you love TV. Whether you’re a network sitcom junkie or a premium content binge streamer, TV is your passion, and now you want to make it your career. How much does a TV writer make?
TV screenwriters are paid according to their industry rate, but all TV screenwriters are protected by the Writers Guild of America as long as they are in the guild.
TV pay scales are very complicated, and minimum pay rates can change dramatically based on the length of show, network, or streaming service that it’s on and the amount of writing the writer does that makes it onto the show.
As of the 2020 Schedule of Minimums, an average TV screenwriter in the WGA can make anywhere between $6,363 to $56,078 per episode for a show, or between $3,964 to $5,059 per week, all depending on specific circumstances.
Those are some high numbers, and they do get higher, but there’s a lot more to know before you can fully understand how TV payments work for TV screenwriters.
To learn more, let’s dive into the details below.
How much is a TV screenwriter paid on average?
As mentioned above, according to the 2020 Schedule of Minimums, an aspiring TV screenwriter can expect to make anywhere between $6,363 to $56,078 per episode or $3,964 to $5,059 per week.
That’s a wide range, and all sorts of variables apply to screenwriters working in TV, that it becomes difficult to answer the question of “how much is a TV screenwriter paid” more specifically.
For instance, what determines whether you are making $6,363 per episode or $56,078?
A ton of varying factors.
What type of factors affect a TV writer’s paycheck?
Here’s an example: Let’s say you are a TV writer expecting to get paid on a per-episode basis for an episode of TV you just finished. How much should you expect to make?
Did you get a “story by” credit for your episode and nothing else? Was the episode 30 minutes long? Did the show fall under the category of “high budget?” Was the series not on Prime Time TV? Then chances are you got paid $6,363 for that episode.
Did you write the script, but not the story? You should then have been paid $10,333 for that episode. Did you write the story and the script? Now you should have gotten $15,903!
Now what if that episode you wrote was a “Made-for basic cable one-hour high budget dramatic series in their second or subsequent season?” You should just about double that rate to $30,780.
Confusing, huh? Change one element and the minimums change – and those are just the minimums. When you are a working professional writer, you’ll have a lawyer and/or manager representing you to negotiate a better deal with every subsequent show or season you work on.
Since every TV writer’s salary is a case by case basis, we are going to focus this article specifically on the guaranteed minimums.
Thankfully, the WGA’s Schedule of Minimums provides a lot of useful information that helps each individual screenwriter break down how much they should expect to be paid depending on all sorts of scenarios similar to the above.
Let’s run through some of the more likely scenarios you will encounter as a first-time writer to set expectations, then get into the more outlandish, pie-in-the-sky type of deals you really want to know about.
How much does a first-time TV writer make?
Let’s say this is your first time writing for television. You’ve followed our advice on how to become a writer for TV or Netflix (or someone else’s!) and have ascended the ranks from a Writer’s Assistant to a full-blown Staff Writer (the “official” entry level TV writer position).
Most staff writers, especially first time staff writers, are paid on a weekly basis. This is for a practical reason that actually benefits the writer. As a staff writer, there’s a chance you might not actually get an episode writing credit for the show you’re working on. This could be because you don’t get assigned your own episode to write, or don’t get the credit because you got rewritten.
In either scenario, it’s better to be fairly compensated for your time – especially because writer’s rooms can be notoriously time intensive.
How much is a staff writer paid per week?
According to the 2020 WGA Schedule of Minimums, a staff writer should expect to be paid between $3,964 to $5,059 per week depending on how many weeks you are guaranteed.
For instance, if you are hired to write for a guaranteed 40 out of 52 weeks total, you should expect to be paid a minimum of $3,964 per week. Meanwhile, if you are being paid week to week, you should expect to get paid a minimum of $5,059 per week.
The week to week rate is also similar for any room that is less than 6 weeks. For instance, if you are only guaranteed 6 weeks of work, probably in some kind of “mini-room” scenario, you will still be guaranteed the $5,059 per week minimum. The pay then scales down from there.
For instance, if you are only guaranteed 14 out of 14 weeks, you’ll be paid $4,700 per week. If you are guaranteed 20 out of 26 weeks total, you’ll be paid $4,338 per week.
Why is the week to week rate higher?
It might not be obvious, but the week to week rate is higher because there is less guaranteed work for the writer. Likewise, the more the studio hiring you can guarantee you consistent work, the less they pay overall because you will have more steady income to rely on.
Here’s a chart we created to help you break it down, including three pay periods outlined in the 2020 Schedule of minimums: 5/20-5/21, 5/21-5/22 and 5/22-5/23.
How much does a staff writer make per episode?
It’s very rare for a staff writer to be paid per episode. For instance, in a 2018 survey of Hollywood TV writer’s salaries, almost every single writer at the Staff writer level reported being paid weekly.
For sake of argument, let’s say you have a few years of experience under your belt, and your representation has negotiated your contract so you’ll be bumped up to a per-episode rate along with a higher rank by the fourth season of the show you are working on.
This also means you have enough experience and can guarantee yourself an episode, either through contractual obligation or sheer competency.
How much should you get paid? We first have to figure out what type of show you are writing for. To make it easy, let’s start by assuming you are writing for a show on network prime time (lucky you!!).
We have created this breakdown of the pay scales for prime time network TV minimums shows broken down by program length and what type of credit you might have on the episode.
|NETWORK PRIME TIME|
|Length of Program: 30 minutes or less||5/20 – 5/21||5/21 – 5/22||5/22 – 5/23|
|STORY & TELEPLAY||27,100||27,778||28,472|
|Length of Program: 60 minutes or less|
|STORY & TELEPLAY||39,858||40,854||41,875|
|Length of Program: 90 minutes or less|
|STORY & TELEPLAY||56,078||57,480||58,917|
|Length of Program: 120 minutes or less (but more than 90 minutes) + EPISODIC|
|STORY & TELEPLAY||73,784||75,629||77,520|
|Length of Program: 120 minutes or less (but more than 90 minutes) + NON-EPISODIC|
|STORY & TELEPLAY||80,647||82,663||84,730|
Here is a chart for comparison:
What about for non-prime time TV shows?
Here’s that same information, but if you were writing on a TV show that’s not airing during network “Prime Time”:
|OTHER THAN NETWORK PRIME TIME|
|Length of Program: 30 minutes or less|
|HIGH BUDGET MINIMUMS ($215,000 & over – $100,000 & over in the case of non-prime time network films)|
|STORY & TELEPLAY||15,903||16,301||16,790|
|Length of Program: 60 minutes or less|
|HIGH BUDGET MINIMUMS ($300,000 & over – $200,000 & over in the case of non-prime time network films)|
|STORY & TELEPLAY||28,907||29,630||30,519|
MADE-FOR BASIC CABLE ONE-HOUR HIGH BUDGET DRAMATIC SERIES IN THEIRSECOND OR SUBSEQUENT SEASON
|Length of Program: 60 minutes|
|HIGH BUDGET MINIMUMS ($1,2000,000 & over)|
|STORY & TELEPLAY||30,780||31,550||32,497|
|OTHER THAN NETWORK PRIME TIME|
|Length of Program: 90 minutes or less|
|STORY & TELEPLAY||43,443||44,529||45,865|
|Length of Program: 120 minutes or less|
|STORY & TELEPLAY||56,932||58,355||60,106|
Keep in mind, the budget of the series in question plays a factor; whether or not the show is considered low budget or high budget will affect your minimum pay rate.
Here are the low budget minimum rates.
|LOW BUDGET MINIMUMS|
|30 min. or less (over 15)||4,923||5,046||5,197|
|60 min. or less (over 30)||9,308||9,541||9,827|
|90 min. or less (over 75)||14,189||14,544||14,980|
|120 min. or less (over 90)||18,740||19,209||19,785|
|30 min. or less (over 15)||7,964||8,163||8,408|
|60 min. or less (over 30)||15,187||15,567||16,034|
|90 min. or less (over 75)||23,254||23,835||24,550|
|120 min. or less (over 90)||30,770||31,539||32,485|
|Story and Teleplay|
|30 min. or less (over 15)||12,290||12,597||12,975|
|60 min. or less (over 30)||23,277||23,859||24,575|
|90 min. or less (over 75)||35,473||36,360||37,451|
|120 min. or less (over 90)||46,861||48,033||49,474|
What if a show or series goes longer than 120 minutes?
The WGA says the following payments apply, “for programs in excess of 120 minutes, compensation is based on the 120 minute or less minimum plus, for each additional 30 minutes or less”:
STORY: $5,393 $5,528 $5,694
TELEPLAY: $10,055 $10,306 $10,615
STORY & TELEPLAY: $13,485 $13,822 $14,237
What about synopsis and series bibles?
The synopsis of an episode, and the series bible are two big important parts of creating a series. TV writers are expected to be paid the following for these activities:
|Plot Outline – Narrative Synopsis of Story|
|30 min. or less (over 15)||2,900||2,973||3,062|
|60 min. or less (over 30)||5,493||5,630||5,799|
|90 min. or less (over 75)||8,117||8,320||8,570|
|120 min. or less (over 90)||10,703||10,971||11,300|
|Bible plus for each story line in excess of six (6)||$6,083||$6,235||$6,422|
What about rewrites and polishes?
If you remember from our article on how much feature screenwriters make, writers will often be asked to rewrite their scripts or “polish” a draft before it can be brought to production. In this instance, a screenwriter is paid according to the following metrics:
|HIGH BUDGET MINIMUMS|
|30 min. or less (over 15)||6,260||6,417||6,610|
|60 min. or less (over 45)||11,843||12,139||12,503|
|90 min. or less (over 75)||17,446||17,882||18,418|
|120 min. or less (over 90)||23,046||23,622||24,331|
|30 min. or less (over 15)||3,124||3,202||3,298|
|60 min. or less (over 45)||5,932||6,080||6,262|
|90 min. or less (over 75)||8,713||8,931||9,199|
|120 min. or less (over 90)||11,520||11,808||12,162|
|LOW BUDGET MINIMUMS|
|30 min. or less (over 15)||4,700||4,818||4,963|
|60 min. or less (over 30)||8,962||9,186||9,462|
|90 min. or less (over 75)||13,234||13,565||13,972|
|120 min. or less (over 90)||17,486||17,923||18,461|
|30 min. or less (over 15)||2,344||2,403||2,475|
|60 min. or less (over 30)||4,476||4,588||4,726|
|90 min. or less (over 75)||6,623||6,789||6,993|
|120 min. or less (over 90)||8,746||8,965||9,234|
What if you are writing for a non-narrative or variety show?
Be it a docuseries, reality series, or comedy variety show, the WGA has separate minimums for you there as well. Here is the relevant information you need to know:
|Applicable Program Minimums – Per Program|
What about for Netflix or other streaming services?
If you are a writer for a Netflix show, or on a series for a similar streaming service, there are a few more variables to consider, but the WGA qualifies this as writing for a SVOD (streaming video on demand) service.
The WGA has pay minimums that scale with the size of the streaming service. Check out the SVOD section in the WGA Schedule of Minimums for all the different variations.
When is a TV screenwriter paid?
It depends entirely on the type of work. For instance, if you are being paid week to week, like you would as a staff writer just starting out, you would be paid on a semi-regular basis (typically bi-weekly or according to what your contract says) as you would any other salary.
If you are at a level higher than a story editor and are being paid a per-episode fee, then the payment structure would look slightly different.
Let’s say you are to be paid for the story by credit on an episode you wrote. The WGA guidelines say that you should be paid your story fee “within 48 hours of delivery but in no event more than 7 days after delivery”, in this case meaning the story or episode draft.
If you wrote the teleplay instead, you would be paid in two installments: once when you turn in your draft, which would one payment of either 90% of your minimum rate or 60% of your agreed compensation (that your reps negotiated for you) – whichever is greater.
Then, when you turn in the final draft, you will be paid the balance of the agreed compensation outlined in your contract.
If you wrote the story and the teleplay for your episode, then the WGA says you should be paid 30% of your agreed compensation when you hand in the story treatment, then the difference between the Story installment and your 90% minimum or 40% of agreed compensation – once again, whichever is greater. Then, when you turn in your final draft, you’ll be paid the balance.
What if a studio buys my original literary material?
According to the WGA, “The minimums are applicable to purchase of previously unexploited material from a ‘professional writer’ and to any writer who has negotiated the right to be treated as a professional writer.’
This means that if you have a manager or lawyer who can reasonably argue you fall under the “professional writer” category, if a studio wanted to buy your original pilot script, you would be entitled to the same minimums that a WGA writer would be entitled to – theoretically, of course.
More likely, if a studio executive, producer, or production company became interested in your original material, they would offer you an option agreement.
In this instance, the buyer could option the material from you to take to market for an initial period of (up to) 180 days, so long as they pay 5% of the appropriate guild minimum as outlined above.
If they wanted to continue to option it for another 180 days from that point, they would have to pay 10% of the minimum.
What about TV residuals?
TV residuals are payments made to TV writers every time their show reruns on a network TV channel. Residuals are great because they usually show up unexpectedly in the mail as an extra source of income for working writers.
Residuals are interesting because they scale down the more that a TV show is rerun, but because they are a percentage of what you were paid originally, even a TV show in its 13th or longer run on the air can net an extra 1.5% of whatever the guild minimum is at the time. Not bad, as far as passive income is concerned.
According to the WGA, residuals for network TV shows (ABC, CBS, NBC, and FBC) are to be paid to the writer within 30 days, while other run-based residuals for basic cable are payable within four months after the run.
Like minimum payments, the residuals for network TV are a lot higher, and higher if it’s a high budget show versus a low budget show.
What about for reruns of shows on Netflix and other streamers?
The WGA has this covered under their SVOD section of the Schedule of Minimums, so check it out there. We may write an article specifically on the subject in the future, but it’s fairly complicated (and new to understand) so we won’t get into it for this article’s sake.
How much more can a screenwriter make writing for TV?
Since these are all just minimum payments, you’re probably wondering how much more you can make as a TV writer. After all, you might have seen those fabulous headlines about huge TV writers getting astronomical overall deals with big streaming platforms (like Netflix).
First of all, it’s important to keep in mind that these huge deals are for huge names – prolific TV producers like Shonda Rhimes (whose Netflix debut Bridgerton was a smash hit) and Ryan Murphy (who went from prolific FX creator to prolific Netflix creator) who’ve been creating hit TV shows for decades.
Plus, just because a deal is inked for $100 million (like the deal to Rhimes) or $300 million (like the deal to Murphy), doesn’t mean all that money is just handed over on a silver platter, as this article from Observer points out.
When it comes to nine figure, pie in the sky deals like the above, the writers are paid over a series of years to produce and develop content and then receive a percentage of the back-end of programming.
That said, there’s plenty of working writers who are capable of wielding their success record and popularity to net gigantic deals for themselves.
This can be done by racking up a ton of episode credits, like the writer David E. Kelley (who notoriously writes whole seasons of famous shows like Big Little Lies himself), or by executive producing tons of shows, like Kenya Barris or Greg Berlanti, racking up higher fees with each deal along the way.
Once you can prove you can make a hit, you become very in-demand, and can set up and produce shows that you can then hire showrunners to run for you. It’s why prolific producers like Murphy, Rhymes, Barris and Berlanti can “create” so many shows at one time, and it’s how the most prolific TV screenwriters earn their biggest pay days.
How do I become a TV writer?
If you really want to become a TV writer, you need to start by honing your craft. Read, watch, and write TV pilots. These days, original pilots are what showrunners are looking for when hiring new talent, but don’t be surprised if you get asked for a spec episode sample, either.
Remember: these original pilots are mostly for samples. Don’t expect to come out of the gate without any credits and sell an original TV show unless you are already a household name. Instead, focus on making the best, page-turning TV pilot you can so you can prove to those who might hire you as a Writer’s Assistant or Staff Writer that you know how to write.
How do you get opportunities to interview for jobs like Writer’s Assistant or Staff Writer?
You need to be working in the industry already, or have representation from a manager, to get connected with opportunities to interview for positions like a Writer’s Assistant or Staff Writer.
If you aren’t living in Los Angeles or New York and already connected to TV producers or those working on set for TV series, then you’ll need to find ways to connect with those who do online.
For more on the subject, you can check out our article on how to become a writer for TV or Netflix.
Grant Harvey is a freelance writer, screenwriter, and filmmaker based out of Los Angeles. When he’s not working on his own feature-length screenplays and television pilots, Grant uses his passion and experience in film and videography to help others learn the tools, strategies, and equipment needed to create high-quality videos as a filmmaker of any skill level.