Suits’ Streaming Popularity Explains Why Hollywood is On Strike

Cable hit Suits is breaking streaming records, proving that actors and writers need better contracts for fair residuals.

SUITS -- Season 1 -- Pictured: (l-r) Gina Torres as Jessica Pearson, Rick Hoffmann as Louis Litt, Meghan Markle as Rachel Zane, Gabriel Macht as Harvey Specter, Patrick Adams as Mike Ross
Photo: Frank Ockenfels/USA/NBCU Photo Bank/NBCUniversal via Getty Images

The USA Network legal drama Suits has seen a surge in popularity on Netflix and Peacock over the summer, with over 3.1 billion minutes of the show watched across both streamers from June 26 to July 2. Nielsen predicts that the show’s popularity on streaming will only continue to grow, given that 75% of the views calculated during that time were generated by only the first three of the series’ nine seasons. With the show pulling such huge numbers nearly four years after its finale, many people have been wondering if the actors and writers will gain anything from the billions of views their show is bringing to these streaming services.

The SAG-AFTRA and WGA strikes of 2023 have brought to light the stark pay discrepancies between broadcast TV and streaming, especially when it comes to residuals. Actors and writers working for broadcast and cable shows receive payments when their episodes appear in reruns and syndication. The amount varies by contract, but it typically has to do with the number of views the episode receives thanks to commercial ad dollars subsidizing the payments. With streaming, however, calculating residual payments gets more complicated.

For the WGA, streaming service residuals are calculated based on the number of total subscribers the service has rather than the number of views an episode or series has. Even though many services like Netflix, Hulu, and Peacock have ad-supported tiers that could subsidize residual increases, payments for both writers and actors that work for streaming services are still pennies compared to what others receive for their work in broadcast TV.

But this is where things get even more confusing. Shows like Suits that were originally filmed for broadcast TV are being licensed by streaming services for a fee. This fee contributes to residual payments, but viewership numbers still aren’t a factor in calculating how much writers and actors receive like they would be if the show went into syndication. Actors like Sean Gunn and Mandy Moore have spoken out since the strike began about how little they’ve received in residuals for Gilmore Girls and This Is Us, respectively. Despite being the lead of a popular series, Moore has received as much as 81 cents and as little as a penny thanks to the current streaming agreement for her show.

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Carina Adly Mackenzie, who has written for shows like The Originals and The Flash and also served as showrunner for Roswell: New Mexico, posted on Twitter that the amount of time that Suits has been watched within the span of a week is equivalent to over 4,000 years, and like many, assumed that both the actors and writers would likely see only a few extra dollars for this achievement.

However, according to series creator Aaron Korsch, this isn’t necessarily the case for him or the other writers on the series. In a reply to Mackenzie, Korsch said that the writers of Suits get better residual rates because the show was created for cable and then licensed to streamers rather than created specifically for the streamer. The contracts that they signed when the show was initially produced seem to protect them and ensure that they receive somewhat fair payment for their work.

For the actors though, it seems like Mackenzie was on the right track. D.B. Woodside, who guest-starred in sixteen episodes of Suits, responded to the news of the show’s current popularity by joking about waiting by his mailbox for residual checks. Because surely, the billions of minutes the show has brought to Netflix and Peacock this summer alone would trickle down to the actors, right?

Unfortunately, it doesn’t seem like the SAG-AFTRA contracts for the show offered the same protections and residual guarantees. Even though Woodside wasn’t a series lead, he is still considered a principal performer, and therefore eligible to receive residual payments under SAG-AFTRA guidelines. Based on the stories we’ve heard from other actors who have similarly had their shows licensed, it doesn’t seem like the actors will see much of a pay bump from Suits’ growing popularity.

Series lead Sarah Gafferty recently posted an Instagram video of her on the picket line with Suits costar Gina Torres. While she doesn’t mention Suits specifically, she does talk about fighting for “the right to make a decent wage that is commensurate with our value to the business” and “the right to participate in the success of our work (I’m looking at you streamers who buy out our residuals and exclusively hold us for YEARS between seasons),” hinting that she and her costars likely won’t benefit much from Suits’ current success.

Actors and writers deserve proper compensation for their work, especially if that work is watched for over a billion minutes within the span of a week. The confusion over whether or not the creatives behind Suits will benefit any from the show’s streaming popularity further proves how important both of these strikes are for the industry. If writers and actors themselves aren’t sure whether or not they’ll get more than a few pennies or dollars for their project when it’s on a streaming service, then something needs to change. They should be able to look back at their contracts and get a clear idea of how much they’ll make depending on minutes or hours watched regardless of if the show is in syndication or licensed to a streamer.

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It’s hard to argue that the immense popularity of Suits isn’t a win for the streaming services, but it should also be a win for the people who made the show.