Late-night writers are among the top priorities in the Writers Guild of America’s negotiations with studios and networks. Currently there are no guild-minimum standards for comedy and variety programs made for “new media” (aka streamers), but anyone who writes for the space must contend with wonky residual calculations that become nearly impossible to track. There’s too many episodes and skits to keep accurate count.
And then there’s the internet. Writers’ monologues, interview segments, or sketches get millions of views, all without compensation. Networks label this material as “promotional” content for the broadcast show — even though many people watch late-night television only as YouTube clips.
An individual with knowledge of ongoing WGA negotiations says addressing promotional content is on the guild’s bargaining agenda. However, we spoke to a veteran late-night writer who said that even if that becomes part of the new deal, they dread the prospect of enforcing residual payments.
“Writers are angry,” they said. “When you combine that with a fear of the future and this underlying anger of not getting a fair deal, especially in the late-night comedy variety area where these companies have just taken so much of our content and not paid for it, there’s a real animosity there. I just feel like there’s going to be a strike because I don’t think the studios are going to agree to a deal that will satisfy the membership.”
This WGA member has been a staff writer for a broadcast late-night comedy for roughly 20 years, with two stints on major late-night talk shows that received Emmy nominations. Currently unemployed, the writer works freelance jobs to get by.
See IndieWire’s full conversation, edited for length and clarity, below. And read IndieWire’s other WGA Anonymous conversations here and here.
IndieWire: I’ve heard from so many people, whether it’s creatives or crafts professionals, that it’s so hard out there right now to find work. What are you experiencing right now? What specifically in the industry market has been challenging for you?
WGA Anonymous: There’s a lot of uneasiness in general. People are unsure of what is going to happen with this negotiation. You combine that with the shifting “late-night” world. That’s harder to define these days because almost nobody watches late-night live. It’s become a different thing. The uneasiness of the business and the economy, and there’s more writers than ever looking for a finite amount of jobs. So of course it becomes tougher to find work.
Late-night ratings have been dwindling by the day and for a decade, late-night shows have been writing and producing for an eventual online audience. Stuff that will be consumed the next day and beyond, whether it’s “Carpool Karaoke” or [Jimmy] Fallon playing toy instruments to a pop song. I’ve watched Seth Meyers do “A Closer Look.” I’ve watched that hundreds of times, and not once on television. It’s all either on YouTube or on social media. Most of that stuff is put as promotional, so we never see a residual. That has a lot to do with what’s going on in this negotiation. There’s just a general changing of what the comedy and variety definition is.
Can you take me through some of the nuances and challenges you as a late-night writer have experienced tracking your residuals and making sure those are enforced? I assume this isn’t a problem that has cropped up in the last couple of years.
Oh, of course. I’ve written for countless talk shows, and I thought I was writing for television. But I can go back on some of the shows I’ve worked on and see full episodes [online] that I’ve never received money for, and they’re all ad-supported.
And let’s face it: The union doesn’t have the manpower to go back and cull through all of that stuff. The WGA is great, and they have so many hard-working people. They’re fighting every day for our rights. But there’s just not enough staff to go back and find all of the stuff. I think that’s why there’s such an urgency to address this because there’s probably billions of unpaid dollars to writers for all the content that has been on platforms for the last decade.
We all have stories: You get the residual check for four cents or something like that. I got a check the other day for 29 cents. Two payments, three cents and 26 cents. It would take me months to track down where that came from. It’s just so hard to find out what even what you’re being paid for.
And that’s because you have hundreds of episodes of late-night comedy spread out over years?
It will say [the name of the] show, but sometimes it means that they it aired in Europe somewhere. It wouldn’t be worth trying to track down where 29 cents came from. But a lot of times, so many times writers when you’re working, you don’t really care. If you get 500 bucks in the mail, you just put it in the bank. You’re not going to spend the next two weeks trying to figure out where it came from. It’s hard for writers to keep up with what their actual contract says, and I think that’s by design by the powers that be.
When are you getting paid? Are you getting paid when these things are reruns on broadcast or airing internationally? Are you not seeing any money when it’s being shown online in some form?
The issue is the “promotional” part of it. [The networks] have now started taking content and putting it on different platforms and saying it’s promotional. In late night, my normal residuals are usually very traceable, meaning if there’s a hiatus and we run four or five repeats, I will expect a check and it will all be traceable. But as of right now, I don’t receive any residuals for anything I see. I see content that I wrote, that co-workers wrote, that friends of mine on other shows wrote, and no one gets paid for any of it.
You mean for things on YouTube or social media, correct? And I can only imagine this has become exacerbated in the last few years?
Yeah, especially with the rise of TikTok and reels on Instagram where you can see sketches from all different shows. They can just be uploaded and posted the same way. Like on TikTok, you will see a clip of a stand-up comic and they will cut the stand-up’s whole show into pieces and you can watch the entire thing on TikTok, and I don’t think the comic’s getting any money for that.
It’s the same thing for sketches. There’s gags I’ve written that have made it into the [redacted] interview segment. It’s millions and millions of hits online. And we receive no money for that. Absolutely none. I think they could probably get away with saying it’s not written, but it is off a written show.
I think one of the biggest issues is for both sides to define what writing is… On all these talk shows, if you include the host, the executive producers, the head writers and producers who get WGA credits, you’re talking anywhere between 15 and 30 writers. It’s very collaborative. So when something gets passed around, your credit is still on it. No one really knows. It’s the same thing as scripted stuff, where your name might be on the script and you came up with half the story and the whole staff wrote the script.
In the late-night and sketch world, you really feel for your fellow writers who work day in and day out to create this stuff, and then it gets passed around as like “promoting” the show. A full segment of “A Closer Look,” that’s not exactly promotion. That’s content.
Are there specific things that can be done to address people in your situation?
The guild has said that this is a priority and I know they are fighting for higher minimums. But I do think residuals are the biggest issue. If a network decided to not pay residuals to someone, it could take months or years to track down those residuals, even if you know where the show aired [online] and when the show aired on network television. You go to streamers and it’s almost impossible to track down any numbers, and by design. So there has to be a higher flat fee for that content.
What will be interesting is if late night and variety talk migrates to those streaming sites. How do you compensate writers for that? If it’s one flat fee for a year or a set amount of time, it’s wildly unfair to popular shows. If the guild has a hard time tracking residuals in some areas now, I don’t know how they will be able to track them with streamers.
I think it’s a question of enforcement. A fair deal is very important for writers but the question is going to be, can we enforce that deal? You know the Seinfeld sketch where he goes to rent a car?
(Jerry Seinfeld voice) “The reservation keeps the car here!”
Anyone can just “take” a reservation, it’s the “holding” the reservation. That’s the most important. Anyone can cut a deal. It’s enforcing the deal that’s important. Writers understand this. This is why there’s going to be a lot of support for a strike authorization. The guild has presented this as existential and it really is. If you can’t enforce these things, then you don’t have a contract.
Have you experienced mini-rooms? Do those sorts of issues apply to you in the late-night world?
I haven’t experienced it, but I have many, many friends who have experienced the mini-room situation. It puts a lot of writers in a tough spot because you want to work, but I can see where the mini-room as they define it now could be just the beginning. Studios have figured out how to maximize the writing process to their advantage and have writers work as little as possible and then overload a few writers or showrunners with most of the work. It hurts. It hurts every aspect of the process. It hurts the working writer, it overstresses the writers who are doing the work, the showrunners who have to pick up the slack. It’s something that just has to be addressed, because it’s untenable.
It’s a huge issue and I don’t think enough people are taking that issue seriously enough. The guild has said they want to make sure that source material wasn’t created by AI. I have no idea how you would enforce that. I mean, three of my answers so far today have been written by ChatGPT. [laughs]
What has been the mood among people that you’ve spoken with in the industry? Are they hurting? Struggling? Pissed?
All those things. I’ve heard a lot of people say what I never thought I would hear: They don’t know that they can make a living doing this. I always thought this was something I could make a living doing. It’s become clearer as a potentially career-ending negotiation. I’ve heard writers talk about going back to school, starting new careers, just because the environment right now is… I’m trying to think of a good word to sum it up. There’s just an unease in the air.
This negotiation, it’ll reveal a lot. There’s so much transition going on. The studios, their investors, and their bottom line, and then the way they view the future of “content” and whether they value writers, or if they think they can move on with fewer writers and use artificial intelligence to write scripts, whether it will go toward more reality or documentaries. It’s a really interesting transitional time. And a lot of writers are nervous.