The Economy of Story

I’ve been involved with reality television for a long time, and have seen productions of all shapes and sizes shift their story department and editor rates north and south in the strangest of ways.  

Let’s say that fictional Company A caps their story producer salaries at $1200/wk and their editors at $2500, working everyone into the ground to meet nearly impossible deadlines on abbreviated schedules.  Company B pays their story producers $2300/wk and caps their editors at $3500, maintains a regular work week, and manages to get shows out on time and on budget without driving their people nuts. 

Why would anybody want to work for Company A?  Because they don’t know that if everyone took a little stock in themselves instead of desperately jumping for the low-hanging fruit of any old paycheck at any personal cost, there wouldn’t be any Company A’s.

Now, I’ll admit that I’m at the comfortable point in my career that I can go a long stretch between gigs if need be rather than jump at something that’s half my rate just to keep the lights on, but I realize that some greener story folks just can’t.  This is what Company A is banking on.  Places like Company A are always on about how their budgets are being squeezed so they have to stay “leaner” and “more competitive,” but the reserved parking spaces next to the front door still have Maseratis in them instead of Priuses.  The reality is that Company A and Company B are probably getting the same rates from the networks and cablers, the real difference being the disproportionately large chunk of change going into Company A’s owners’ pockets that they’ll begrudgingly fund overages out of only after things start to go south.   Bringing shows in for them while paying anemic rates is like playing poker in Vegas.  Sometimes the house wins, sometimes it loses, it just depends on the flop.

Since Company B pays competitive rates for their story producers and editors, they can attract more experienced, seasoned people.  The result is a happier, more efficient work environment in which great shows can be turned out by skilled minds and eyes without robbing their employees of sleep or pride.  There are fewer mistakes, fewer notes.  The owners still make a healthy (though less obscene) profit on their shows, and generally, everybody goes home happy at the end of the day.

I’m begging you, future editors and story folks … don’t work for Company A.  Just don’t.  If you get promoted within, you’ll probably work your way up the ladder and someday be supervising shows for about the same money you should have been making down the flow chart as a story producer.  What kind of reward or long term plan is that, and why on earth would you remain so doggedly loyal to a company that would treat you like that just to get a title bump or two?


2 thoughts on “The Economy of Story

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  1. But what if you’re on the other side of the equation? You post, say, a story producer job and accept cover letters and resumes. Do you state what you’ll pay, put it up for “negotiations”, or ask for what they’re willing to work for? Would the first tactic possibly lose you a great person applying because you underbid or overpay for a complete idiot? As for the second and third tactics, if someone is willing to work for less than you budgeted, shouldn’t to take them at their offer? TV isn’t charity. It’s a business, after all.

    Or, to go back to the other side of the equation, how often is the second and third tactics taken by production companies? And how do you deal with those situations?

  2. If you post a rate of $1200/wk for story producers, you get what you deserve.

    Most of the time if you post “salary negotiable,” you’ll get an unfiltered stream of applicants at varying levels of experience and competency. If someone you decide to call in won’t work for what you’ve budgeted out or are willing to pay, then you move on to the next person and it’s as if they never applied. What did you lose?

    If the applicant sets their own rate at the top of the negotiation by saying, “I need $1600/wk” and you’ve got $2200/wk budgeted, then good for you — you’ve saved $600/wk and they feel good about getting what they wanted. It also leaves you wiggle room to hire someone fantastic who might be just a little over what you were hoping to pay. Let the applicant set their own bar and then decide if you want to meet it.

    I used to get called in on jobs that wanted to pay a supervising producer $1800/wk. I usually refused. If I thought the company was interesting, I’d take the meeting, gently imply that the salary was not equal to the task, and no one ever had any hard feelings on departure. A few times, they even called back with far better offers, realizing the sub-par quality of talent you can get on a beer budget made it worth sweetening the pot for them.

    You’re absolutely right that TV is most certainly a business and not a charity, but there are certain houses very few skilled people will work for owing to their reputation for being flat-out cheap or abusive. I won’t name names here, though. These companies do not attract top-flight capable talent that can deliver things in great shape on time.

    There are things you can give your employees that cost little or nothing but make the gigs attractive. Me, I chase my team out of the building at 7pm and very rarely ask anyone to work on weekends. I buy lunch for the team or pizza for the entire post staff once in a while. I try to keep the atmosphere fun and work toward getting my people advanced within the ranks, sometimes taking them aside one-on-one for career trajectory conversations. That’s how I get (and keep) top talent.

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