This has been a windfall year for ad spending, but the money isn’t trickling down to rank-and-file TV professionals in Los Angeles
Second in a series on how the economic downturn is affecting the Industry.
If your search for television jobs is looking bleak, it may not be your industry's fault.
The problem might be your state's economy.
A record number of TV pilots were made last year, thanks to an increasing number of cable stations getting into original programming. This has been a windfall year for cable and network ad spending. But the money isn't necessarily trickling down to rank-and-file actors, writers and other professionals in Los Angeles, the heart of the industry.
Just as television has splintered from three major networks into hundreds of stations, shows and jobs are branching out to more and more cities.
A record-setting 169 pilots were shot last year, according to FilmL.A. The increase was fueled by a cable boom: For the first time, more than half the pilots were for cable networks.
That's good news for the industry overall, and for stars and showrunners pulling big salaries. But in Los Angeles, some struggling actors and writers are still having a tough time finding work. Or making less money. Or both.
Some of the factors – such as contracting budgets forcing some shows to make across-the-board cuts – are industry-wide. But others are California-specific.
California — which has the eighth-largest economy on earth — must perenially weigh the needs of Hollywood against those of struggling schools, crumbling neighborhoods and overcrowded prisons.
The cash-strapped Golden State hasn't been able to compete with the tax incentives offered by other locations – especially New York and Canada – resulting in a show business jobs market that hasn't boomed even as business picks up in cities like Portland, Vancouver, Albuquerque, Toronto and Atlanta.
And, especially, in New York, which now brags an all-time record number of Big Apple-based primetime shows.
Of course, California has less need for incentives: Besides soundstages, good weather and all the other factors that created Hollywood, Los Angeles has vast reserves of talent, from actors and writers to lighting technicians and camera operators.
But thanks to an expanding industry, crews in smaller cities are getting more experienced every day.
What Los Angeles needs are more dramas, which have lost airtime in the last decade to cheaper — and often more popular — comedy and reality shows. Dramas employ people by the hundreds, far more than other types of shows. But many of them shoot outside the city that is home to the major studios.
"From an economic standpoint, TV dramas are a golden goose that is not nesting in Los Angeles this season," said Todd Lindgren, vice president of FilmL.A. The private, not-for-profit group processes permits for on-location shoots in the Los Angeles area.
In the 2010-11 season, Los Angeles produced only 10 hour-long drama pilots for networks and 13 for cable, according to FilmL.A.
New York, meanwhile, hosted 10 for networks and five for cable. Canada was home to eight for networks and 10 for cable, and other locations hosted 16 and 19, respectively.
The drama situation doesn't seem to be improving for the shooting capitol: Los Angeles' scripted dramas actually had 20 percent fewer permitted production days in the third quarter of this year than it did in the same period in 2010, according to FilmL.A.
In the same period, comedies had 13 percent more permitted production days, and reality shows had 30 percent more. The city's massive number of soundstages still makes it the home of the vast majority of comedies, including 64 of the 78 comedy pilots that shot last year.
The number of television and radio jobs in California is back to pre-recession levels, according to the California Department of Labor, which counts them together. It says there were 28,700 such jobs in August, up from 26,500 in June 2009, when the recession is said to have ended. The industries had 28,800 jobs in December 2007, when the economic crisis started.
But the jobs numbers hide the fact that many in the TV industry are doing less work, getting paid less, or both.
From 2009 to 2010, the Writers Guild of America reports a 1.1 percent decrease in the number of its members reporting earnings from television. But those that did report earnings scored a record $532.1 million – a 2.9 percent increase.
That means a slightly bigger pie, and slightly fewer people sharing in it. Not the kind of economic injustice that will make anyone Occupy Hollywood, but still a case of more money in fewer hands.
The American Federation of Television and Radio Artists, which represents a growing number of new shows, says that many actors who once commanded salaries above the guild standard are now having trouble getting their asking price, or quote.
"The kinds of quotes that were available five years ago and 10 years ago are for some performers much harder to come by today," said Kim Roberts Hedgpeth, AFTRA's national executive director, who is the lead negotiatorfor all of the union's major national contracts.
But television actors also have opportunities outside the medium that didn't exist just years ago, she noted.
"Increasingly for actors, the world is not just about television," she said. "It is about new media, it is about videogames, it is about audiobooks."
Perhaps no network better illustrates the new TV drama economy than AMC: It has helped fuel the explosion in cable dramas, and of the five dramas it has aired since 2007, only "Mad Men" is filmed in the Los Angeles area. The others have spread out across North America: "Breaking Bad" (Albuquerque, N.M.), "The Killing" (Vancouver), the now-canceled "Rubicon" (New York), and "The Walking Dead" (Atlanta).
"Breaking Bad" was originally set in San Bernardino County, outside Los Angeles, but moved to New Mexico in part for tax credits. (The state's stunning vistas and array of eclectic extras haven't hurt the show, either.)
AMC is also part of the trend toward cost-cutting, and has become almost as famous for public disputes with its show creators as it is for Emmy-winning dramas. Earlier this year, "Mad Men" show runner Matthew Weiner was asked to use fewer actors to cut costs – before he ultimately secured himself a raise and no reductions in his cast.
California's overall economic malaise has made the state's leaders less willing to offer the kinds of incentives as New York, which now boasts 23 primetime shows as well as a slew of morning, late-night, and news programs.
New York offers up to $420 million total in film and TV credits each year, which will remain in place through 2014. California offers up to $100 million a year, $10 million of which is designated for independent films.
California also only offers TV incentives for basic cable, except in the case of shows like "Body of Proof" that relocate to the city from elsewhere. The Dana Delany drama shot its first season in Rhode Island before moving to Los Angeles for its second.
Somehow, no one in Los Angeles thought to throw the cast and crew a parade.
Next: Voices From Hollywood's Trenches