TV salaries and revenue

How the revenue from a television series is distributed among those who work on the show differs widely across genres and networks and depends on the relative success of the program, along with an assortment of many other factors.

The earnings of executive producers—showrunners in particular—and other above-the-line talent may be calculated per week, per episode, or per year, and can vary from one pay cycle to the next depending on the work performed or might remain fixed throughout a season; in some cases, there may also be royalties for additional episode airings and DVD sales.

Executive producers and their agents typically negotiate salary terms with networks prior to production, though as noted, many factors figure into the ultimate arrangements.

A budget for a writing team is often part of these negotiations, and so once they’re laid down, the executive producer can begin hiring writers to work on material for the series. The Writers’ Guild of America puts out a publicly available “Schedule of Minimums” on a regular basis delineating minimum fees for writers and producers across a wide range of job categories, classified by program format and other terms of employment.

Despite these minimums, inexperienced creators in genres that fall outside of these parameters, such as animation, may earn less than the figures reported, while well known talent may earn significantly more. It is not unusual for showrunners to take in approximately four to five times more than the writers. Another portion of the budget may be devoted to companies that produce special material for the series—animation houses are a good example here as well—while the remainder constitutes salaries for editors and other technical staff.

To apply concrete figures to the subject, showrunners’ salaries for reality television and game shows, for example, generally range from $3,000 to $12,000 per week, with the higher end representing what one might find in higher-end cable productions.

Earnings in all genres and formats, however, are subject to multiple determinants, and so executive producers on the lowest-budget basic cable series earn significantly less than those on the big four broadcast networks, and these in turn play in a different ballpark from some major premium cable productions, which are often more comparable to feature films in terms of budget.

In addition to network, professional experience (or celebrity) can make a major difference in negotiations. It should go without saying that Regis Philbin and J. J. Abrams will receive a more favorable arrangement than new producers cutting their teeth on a USA network original series.

Even for those whose careers begin in obscurity, series tenacity can lead to renegotiations and considerably more generous awards for executive producers, writing staff, cast, and others. Precious few series last beyond their third season, and so entering year four can be like passing over a hump.

Network agreements are revisited and, especially if the show’s success can be measure in critical accolades and ratings alike, showrunners may find themselves with more creative control and earning power. The downside of these renegotiations is that budgets may wind up too high for the series to sustain, with the series shooting itself in its own foot. Salary increases by as much as $50,000 per episode may be deemed appropriate remuneration.

As a final note, there are a few aspects of monetary distribution that, contrary to common belief, don’t tend to apply much in the television industry as things stand currently. Advertising revenue seldom affects executive producers, for instance, while international distribution and music publishing rights are all but absent from network agreements and in many cases are explicitly excluded.

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