“Orange Is the New Black” Signalled the Rot Inside the Streaming Economy


In December, 2020, in the depths of pandemic winter, the actress Kimiko Glenn got a foreign-royalty statement in the mail from the screen actors’ union, SAG-AFTRA. Glenn is best known for playing the motormouthed, idealistic inmate Brook Soso on the women’s-prison series “Orange Is the New Black,” which ran from 2013 to 2019, on Netflix. The orchid-pink paper listed episodes of the show that she’d appeared on (“A Whole Other Hole,” “Trust No Bitch”) alongside tiny amounts of income (four cents, two cents) culled from overseas levies—a thin slice of pie from the show that had thrust her to prominence. “I was, like, Oh, my God, it’s just so sad,” Glenn recalled. With many television and movie sets shuttered, she was supporting herself with voice-over jobs, and she’d been messing around with TikTok. She posted a video in which she scans the statement—“I’m about to be so riiich!”—then reaches the grand total of twenty-seven dollars and thirty cents and shrieks, “WHAT?”

The post got more than four hundred thousand likes and nearly two thousand comments, many from disbelieving fans: “Wait how is that even legal??” “how is this even real you were on one of the biggest netflix shows.” This past May, with screenwriters on strike and labor unrest sweeping Hollywood, Glenn reposted the video on Instagram, where she has almost a million followers. This time, not only fans but castmates weighed in. Matt McGorry, who played a corrections officer: “Exaccctttlllyyy. I kept my day job the entire time I was on the show because it paid better than the mega-hit TV show we were on.” Beth Dover, who played a manager at the company taking over the prison: “It actually COST me money to be in season 3 and 4 since I was cast local hire and had to fly myself out, etc. But I was so excited for the opportunity to be on a show I loved so I took the hit. Its maddening.”

When “Orange” premièred, ten years ago this week, it broke ground in multiple ways. Created by Jenji Kohan and based on Piper Kerman’s memoir, the show was ribald, off-kilter, playfully knowing about female sexuality, and sharp-eyed about the prison-industrial complex. Although it centered on Piper (Taylor Schilling), a sheltered, blond yuppie adjusting to life in minimum-security lockup, its selling point was the huge, multiracial, largely female ensemble, which, as The New Yorker’s Emily Nussbaum observed at the time, represented a “truly impressive array of prisoners, played by actresses of varying ages and appearances, including types rarely shown on TV.” The series was also a breakthrough for Netflix as it was transitioning from a DVD-rental-by-mail service to a streaming company with its own content; “Orange” arrived just a few months after “House of Cards.” With “Orange,” Nussbaum noted, Netflix was “quickly establishing itself as a real rival to cable.” The shift came with a new viewing pattern: binge-watching, in which an entire season could be consumed at once. “House of Cards,” anchored by the star power of Kevin Spacey and Robin Wright, brought the company instant prestige. But “Orange” was a ground-up phenomenon, with a fervid fan base that would binge, binge, and binge again. The show’s runaway success was a cornerstone that helped build the Netflix brand, which in turn built the streaming economy, which has now taken over pretty much the entire industry.

A decade on, however, some of the cast feel disillusioned about how they were compensated, both during the original run and in the years since. Television actors have traditionally had a base of income from residuals, which come from reruns and other forms of reuse of the shows in which they’ve appeared. At the highest end, residuals can yield a fortune; reportedly, the cast of “Friends” has each made tens of millions of dollars from syndication. But streaming has scrambled that model, endangering the ability of working actors to make a living. “So many of my friends who have nearly a million followers, who are doing billion-dollar franchises, don’t know how to make rent,” Glenn told me. That struggle has brought SAG to the precipice of a potential strike, authorized by more than ninety-seven per cent of about sixty-five thousand voting members. (The negotiation deadline, after an eleventh-hour extension, is tonight.) In certain ways, “Orange” was an early indicator of how lopsided the streaming economy would be, and a number of cast members are now conflicted: they’re proud to have been on such a progressive, influential show, but feel shortchanged out of the wealth that it created. “We all took a risk together,” Alysia Reiner, who played the corrupt warden Natalie (Fig) Figueroa, said. “And the reward for Netflix does not seem in line with the reward for all of us who took that risk. I can go anywhere in the world and I’m recognized, and I’m so deeply grateful for that recognition. Many people say they’ve watched the series multiple times, and they quote me my lines. But was I paid in a commensurate way? I don’t think so.”

I spoke to ten actors from the show, many of whom spent several seasons as “recurring guest stars,” meaning that they had substantial roles over numerous episodes but weren’t part of the core group categorized—and compensated—as series regulars. (According to TV Guide, Schilling was paid thirty-five thousand dollars per episode in 2014—far more than a day player, far less than Téa Leoni’s hundred and twenty-five thousand for “Madam Secretary,” on CBS.) “The first thing we say to each other when we see each other, is, like, ‘Yeah, it’s really fucked up—all my residuals are gone!’ ” Emma Myles, who spent six seasons playing Leanne Taylor, an ex-Amish meth addict, told me. “It’s always the first thing to come out of our mouths, because it’s so crazy and unjust. And everyone thinks we’re kajillionaires.” When Myles was cast, for the first season, she was having a rough time (astrologically speaking, she called it a Saturn return from hell): she’d lost a restaurant job, then was displaced by a house fire, then moved into a new apartment that had bedbugs. She was about to give up on New York when she got a three-episode offer for “Orange.” “I would explain to people, ‘Yeah, it’s for Netflix,’ and they were, like, ‘Oh, with the envelopes? That’s cute.’ ”

“Orange” was distributed by Netflix but produced by Lionsgate, which determined the cast’s up-front payments. Myles was paid scale, SAG’s minimum rate, which was under nine hundred dollars per day. “They could and would pay us the absolute bare minimum, and there was really no wiggle room,” she recalled. Her contract was appended with SAG’s 2012 New Media Agreement, which covered projects “produced for initial exhibition via the Internet, mobile devices, or any other platform known or which hereafter may be adopted” (now known as half of TV). SAG had originally codified the agreement in 2009, after a yearlong standoff with the studios. At the time, streaming TV was mostly theoretical, except for the under-five-minute “Webisodes” that “Lost” ran on abc.com. The contractual terms were—and remain—much worse for actors than those of “linear” TV. (This is a major source of contention in the actors’ current standoff with the studios.) Traditional broadcast series pay residuals for each re-airing, calculated as a percentage of the actor’s salary. The 2012 New Media Agreement entitled Myles to residuals only after the first fifty-two weeks the show was on the platform; the amount was based not on how many times each episode was watched but on a percentage of the licensing fee that Netflix paid Lionsgate to distribute the show. (If this sounds confusing, don’t worry—the actors also find it baffling.) Myles still gets around six hundred dollars a year for a handful of guest spots on “Law & Order: Special Victims Unit,” stretching back to 2004, but her residuals this year for “Orange” have come to around twenty bucks.

Netflix didn’t share its viewership numbers (and still mostly doesn’t), making it harder for the actors to negotiate higher salaries. But the “Orange” cast could tell that the show was a megahit from their overnight fame. “We knew that it was insanely popular,” Myles said. “We’d walk out of our houses in whatever neighborhood we were living in, and people were going crazy.” The comedian Lea DeLaria, who played the lovable bull dyke Big Boo, recalled getting swarmed by a group of screaming teen-agers. “My girlfriend at the time said, ‘Lea, you’re a Jonas brother!’ ”



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