TV Writers Face Grim Reality in Post-Writers Strike, Post-Peak TV Era

Emily Cheever’s career was just getting started. 

The 36-year-old began her TV writing career in 2020 as a writers’ production assistant and script coordinator for Legends of Tomorrow before getting hired as a staff writer for ABC’s The Company You Keep. After the drama that marked Milo Ventimiglia’s follow-up to This Is Us was canceled following a single season shortly after the Writers Guild of America strike began last May, Cheever had no job to return to when it ended in September. Like scores of other writers of all levels and backgrounds, she doesn’t know when or where her next paycheck will come from.

“People are scared. I’m trying to go back to bartending,” she says“A lot of people are wondering what other jobs they can do. I’m close with my old showrunners, and they’re supportive of me, but they’re looking for jobs.” 

Across the TV landscape, buying has cooled dramatically and many writers now find themselves in situations like Cheever, with opportunities shrinking as the industry shifts from Peak TV to an era of contraction and austerity — a wave of downsizing that kicked off last year when the priorities of Wall Street changed from a focus on subscriber growth to profitability. As streamers like Netflix and Max right-size their slates, the broadcast pipelines for Peacock, Hulu and Paramount+ are drying up. A decade ago, broadcasters collectively ordered as many as 98 pilots; today, that number can be counted on one hand.

“There are so few shows that are still being greenlit, so few new pilots that are being ordered and fewer spots in writers rooms,” says Shannon Corbeil, a finalist for the Disney TV Writing Fellowship that was put on hold during the WGA strike. “The staffing positions available are going to more seasoned writers and the pilots that are being purchased are being bought from proven writers.” 

Brandon K. Hines spent more than a decade working in support staff jobs and as a script coordinator on Comedy Central’s Awkwafina Is Nora From Queens and Amazon’s Harlem. He was staffed as a writer for the first time on Showtime’s Fellow Travelers. Hines was homeless and had been bouncing between camping, couch surfing with friends and the occasional Airbnb before he turned to driving for DoorDash and Grubhub after his 16-week writing job on the Showtime limited series concluded before the strikes began. A potential writing job on a Weeds revival he lined up before the strike evaporated during the work stoppage, as Showtime dropped plans for the series sources say. 

“You need multiple gigs a year to make a livable wage,” Hines says, noting that competition for lower-level writing jobs has intensified as mid-level scribes and showrunners are increasingly putting themselves up for the few shows that are currently staffing. “It’s the craziest time to be a working writer in Hollywood: You can [work on] a semi-hit show but still can’t afford to make a living wage. It’s pretty intense.”  

It’s not just the lack of pilots that is affecting the challenging landscape that writers have found in the industry since the strike concluded in September. The overall volume of U.S.-produced, live-action scripted TV series tumbled 14 percent last year, from a high of 600 in 2022 to 516 in 2023. FX CEO John Landgraf, who coined the term “Peak TV,” told The Hollywood Reporter in February that the downturn started well before the WGA strike last May.

“There was a certain amount of inefficiency that was just about a whole bunch of companies entering a space where they had no prior experience. And you can’t blame anybody but inexperience for that,” Landgraf says of the billions of dollars rival streamers spent on programming in a bid to compete with Netflix.

Since then, television reporters have been transformed into show grim reapers, announcing waves of cancellations and “unrenewals” — series that were canceled after they had originally been renewed by networks — including Uncoupled, Pitch Perfect: Bumper in Berlin and A League of Their Own.

The Entertainment Community Fund, which provides assistance in the form of funds, workshops and trainings for those who work in the film and TV industries, has already distributed more than $3.25 million to 1,600 folks from Jan. 1 through March 22. That’s on top of the $18.8 million the ECF handed out in 2023 during the dual work stoppage to 8,500 people (including more than 600 writers). 

Keith McNutt, executive director of the ECF, says the group has received requests for financial assistance from writers of all experience levels and cultural backgrounds since the strikes concluded. The ECF, he says, is dispersing between $200,000 to $300,000 a week. “We’re still doing three times the amount of assistance per week as before the pandemic,” he says. 

The WGA, which monitors employment levels among its members, declined to comment for this story other than to say the union “required some time for a clear post-strike picture to occur.”  

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“It’s erratic. The market has settled into something different with only five or six buyers left,” says one veteran executive turned studio chief of the new TV landscape. “It has been reshaped with fewer rooms, and rooms that are smaller with fewer jobs.” 

Though the WGA won some room size protections in its new Minimum Basic Agreement (MBA), big writers rooms with a dozen or more scribes — once commonplace — are increasingly hard to find. “There are thousands of people going up for one job and only six slots per show on a good day,” says one veteran lit agent who pointed to Watson adding three writers after it was picked up for 13 episodes. The CBS drama started development more than a year ago with a mini-room that featured only six scribes. “It doesn’t feel like anyone gets a [big writers room] unless you’re an NCIS.”

The lack of The CW as a buyer for multi-season shows like Legends of Tomorrow and Superman & Lois (now in its abbreviated fourth and final season) is also contributing to the downturn in available gig for writers. Since Nexstar took control of The CW from Warner Bros. and CBS Studios in October 2022, the network has canceled more than a dozen scripted originals and is no longer buying scripts from the traditional studio system the way it did under former CW CEO Mark Pedowitz. That has left hundreds of writers out of work, as The CW previously served as a way for new scribes to learn the ropes. 

As writers anxiously wait for a new wave of script deals to begin, many are turning to other jobs or consider leaving the industry altogether. “I was interviewing for teaching jobs. I interviewed at a university and was close to leaving Hollywood forever,” says an experienced showrunner. “Nobody ever starts their career thinking that it will last forever. I never thought I’d be a writer for as long as I have, but I didn’t expect to run into a brick wall. I thought it’d be a slow tapering, but this feels like a cataclysm. It was a very emotional thing I did when I applied for teaching jobs. I don’t know if I’m ever going to forgive Hollywood for this. To go from the pandemic to the strikes to this? It feels like one war of attrition after another.”

For this showrunner, the recent salary gains secured in the new MBA are helpful but pale in comparison to the residuals that writers received from working on the type of long-running shows that boasted 24-episode seasons and were the bedrock of broadcast before streaming. “Writers at my stage a generation ago would have had much more money in the bank,” he says. “The fact that our earnings, up and down the ranks, have been diminished and the fact that we can’t rely on residuals to support us through the lean periods … people are in total survival mode. Even though we’ve made gains through the last two strikes, they don’t add up to what it used to look like for veteran writers.”

McNutt says many scribes have turned to the ECF’s career center to help identify skills that can transfer elsewhere. “We try to look at people’s transferable skills and identify other kinds of work they can do to bring in money on the side. Being a writer is the dream and the passion and hopefully the primary wage source, but if that’s not bringing in enough money you can create a parallel career consulting with nonprofits or editing fundraising proposals.”

“I’m scared. No one is making decisions,” says another veteran showrunner who has been waiting since October to hear back on multiple pilots. “You end up not being able to get paid because executives are not making decisions because they’re afraid to make the wrong ones.” This showrunner is now trying to figure out how to pay his mortgage after his overall deal expired and as his projects sit in limbo. “That’s where a lot of us are,” he notes. “Almost everyone I know who had a deal, that deal doesn’t exist anymore.” 

Agents, too, are feeling the pressure as clients come calling, looking for answers on when the downturn might end and when buying could perk up. But agents say they don’t have the answers. “It’s just hard. There are a lot less jobs out there and more people available than ever,” says one. Adds another: “There are no shows getting picked up and the shows that are getting ordered have very tiny budgets, and showrunners are getting 600 submissions for staffing on a light day when it’s usually half of that. There are more writers who are unemployed than ever before. It’s sad.”

So, when will the turnaround begin? 

Keto Shimizu has worked steadily since breaking into the industry in 2010, with credits that include Being Human, Arrow and showrunning Legends of Tomorrow. She was told by her reps that networks and streamers would start buying again after the calendar turned to 2024. “It’s been three months, and no one can get anything sold,” she says as she juggles five different projects — all of them based on IP — with the hopes that one will eventually find a buyer. “For writers who are trying to pay their bills, it’s really scary because we only make money if things sell. As a showrunner who is a queer woman of color and I can’t get work? That’s saying a lot. It’s very frustrating.” 

“Stay alive ’till ’25,” was the advice given to emerging writer Corbeil, the former finalist for the Disney TV Writing Fellowship, by her reps. Corbeil believes she’s ready to be staffed on a show but has been hearing “it’s really tough to get emerging writers jobs” since the strike ended. In the meantime, she remains open to assistant jobs, and she’s pitching pilots to channels that are buying — like Hallmark and Lifetime. “Selling a pilot can pay your bills for a year,” she says. 

“I think [the current lull] is temporary,” says one studio chief. “There are a lot of shows and outlets that need writers, and Netflix needs to keep feeding the beast.” Many of the dozens of writers and executives THR polled are indeed optimistic that things will pick up again toward the end of the current 2023-24 broadcast season, when networks will begin buying scripts to develop for the future. “Networks are going to need shows, and streamers will need shows because original series are what brand them,” says a studio insider. “I don’t know that networks can go until 2025 without buying; they just won’t be buying as much.”   

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