My chat today with Showrunner extraordinaire, Al Magee (not just in my opinion, he having won the Showrunner award at this year's Writer's Guild awards) on the set of Little Mosque on the Prairie led to an interesting delineation between the hiring obligations under the Writer's Guild of AMERICA agreement versus the Writer's Guild of CANADA IPA agreement. He pointed out that in the US, shows are obliged to hire a minimal number of freelance writers per season, whereas in Canada no such obligation exists.
A little explanation of how TV staffs their writing department may be necessary here.
TV shows hire a Showrunner first. His or her job is to oversee the creation and production of a season of a television series. He gets to hire writers, directors and actors as well as crew and oversee the writing, production and editing of the show. In most cases, he'll hire story editors on a weekly rate to work "in the room"--ie, literally attend meetings in a writer's room and break down the season's arc and each episode's stories. Story editors are usually guaranteed a certain number of scripts as well.
A freelance writer hired to write an episode would not be invited to be "in the room." They are expected to deliver their script and at that point, the story editor will take over if necessary--which it usually is--and hone the script for creative and production considerations.
Most shows in Canada hire few to no freelance writers to pen an episode "out of the room." There's no requirement that they do, but in the States there is, which allows some of the work to be spread out to freelance writers who may work on one or two or even three different series every year.
Al wondered out loud if this wouldn't be a good thing in Canada as well--the obligation to hire the occasional freelance writer--because if you choose someone who is not the vocal type as a story editor, while they may be a great writer, they don't bring much value added to the room. They would be more suitable as strictly a writer of episodes. But once the show is fully staffed as is usually the case in Canada, the showrunner has no room to maneouvre his or her hiring to bring in a freelancer. The obligation would keep that option open.
Having spent most of my writing career as a freelancer, I'd certainly applaud this initiative to reserve a script or two per season for a freelance scribe. In fact, when I began writing series television, virtually all the scripts were written on a freelance basis, but since about 1990, the industry in Canada has shifted to a more "American" model--staff writers hired to fill the room for a season and guaranteed a couple of episodes. It's ironic that the American model requires the freelance position!
What do you say, WGC? Think we can open the door a bit for the freelance writer--the bulk of our membership? (I know the answer--not now, as we will probably ratify just an extension to our current IPA agreement.) But this should be on the table for future negotiations.
Meanwhile, I hope Showrunners take a nod from Al and leave themselves the room to hire a freelancer or two every season. It means that freelancers must take more responsibility for the drafts they deliver, but it will also give Showrunners flexibility that they may not know they'll need at the start of a season.