During the last Writers’ Strike, there was an awful lot of noise online from disgruntled television viewers about how it was a war of the wealthy wherein writers and producers were all just greedy little overpaid pigs who were peeved that they weren’t getting their lattes fast enough.
Those kind of statements illustrate the shallow depth of understanding that many folks with 52-week-a-year jobs possess about the nature of show business.
Sitcoms and dramas are seasonal, and while many of their writers are covered under WGA agreements that provide them with residuals to help them through the lean times between seasons, their seemingly hefty weekly and per-episode paydays lose their punch when you take into consideration the amount of time they have off between gigs or the fact that coming up empty-handed during a staffing season could mean a year at home burning through savings.
In reality television, where non-WGA production is the unfortunate norm, the upshot is that it’s possible to land on a couple of shows a year, maybe even three. Still, it’s unusual for reality folks to work more than half to three-quarters of a year. Work a $2000 a week job nine months out of the year, and your salary looks more like $1500 a week. Work half the year, and you’re really only making $1000 a week.
If you’re fairly new to the business, it’s even worse. A $900 a week story assist gig eight months of the year yields only $600 a week in the bigger picture… not exactly big money in a city where home prices start in the $400,000 range and even livable apartments start at $1100 or so.
When considering a career in television, it’s critical that you have a basic working knowledge of the economics of your profession. I watch newbies risk it all to move to LA with virtually no savings only to return home in defeat months later, and folks that have been here for a decade fail miserably and move into other professions due to their inability to manage their cash flow.
Financial guru Suze Orman has it right when she suggests everyone have eight months salary socked away. Easier said than done, I know, but if you’re going to work in this business, you’ve got to learn to be frugal. Don’t subscribe to an idealized lifestyle and keep your credit card balances low if at all possible. It’s critical to your long-term health as a creative professional.
Take it from a guy who’s worked regularly for ten years and still enjoys a nice studio apartment in the Valley.