Sunshine Week: TV Shows Get Public Subsidies Too. Here’s What We Know about Them. Or Not.

March 13, 2023

a glowing cartoon TV screen with "your favorite TV show got public subsidies" written on the screenI’ve written in the past about film subsidies, and how problematic they are. A slew of research finds them to be ineffective drivers of regional economic prosperity, returning anywhere from a dime to 50 cents for every $1 in subsidy given. And which studios and filmmakers get them is in many states completely hidden from the public, making their true impact unknown.

In honor of Sunshine Week, which launched today, let’s turn to subsidies that go to TV shows. Yes, that’s right – TV series get subsidies too. When you lounge on Friday night watching your beloved TV shows, remember that they most likely were made with public money.

TV subsidies are often part of states’ film production subsidies and get cash (via the selling of “film tax credits”) and tax breaks, and not just for shows including Judge Mathis and Downton Abbey but also for commercials and even news shows (the real ones and fake, comedy ones).

In California, for example, over half – 57% – of credits are allocated to TV productions. In New York, cops drama Blue Bloods has received $120.7 million, and Saturday Night Live has received over $66 million. Open 4 Business, LLC, the production company behind Chicago Fire, has gotten over $86.5 million in tax credits in Illinois. These productions (and a few more) are getting a spot on our megadeal list.

But while we have data from some states including California, New York, and Louisiana, many others disclose nothing or very little on who gets film and TV production tax breaks. (Remember, these “tax credits” are actually huge cash gifts because they far exceed the companies’ tax obligations.)

Georgia’s film subsidy program costs state taxpayers over $1 billion annually, yet it has zero transparency on how much individual companies receive. We can only wonder how much Netflix got for Stranger Things and Ozark, or what AMC Studios got for The Walking Dead.

Even in states that provide some disclosure, it is often incomplete. The name of an LLC may appear, but with no way to tell who is behind it. And only one state of which we’re aware, Virginia, provides totals on both promised jobs and actual jobs created.

Through our Subsidy Tracker database, which includes corporate parent -subsidiary linkages, we have some insight on which studios get the most. Not surprisingly, they are the biggest players in the business.

In New York state, out of $4 billion in tax credit issued to film and tv shows, $1.8 billion went to only four corporations:

  • Paramount, for shows including Madam Secretary and Elementary;
  • Comcast, for Law & Order, Tonight Show Starring Jimmy Fallon, and others;
  • Walt Disney Co., for Quantico, Jessica Jones, and others; and
  • Warner Brothers, for Blindspot, The Mysteries of Laura, and others.

Out of California’s $2.1 billion, $935,000 went to the same four giants (for Star Trek: Picard, Good Girls, American Horror Story, Major Crimes, and other shows). All except for Comcast are headquartered in California, which goes to another problem with film subsidies.

A 2016 Georgia state audit of its subsidy program estimated that 88% of the state’s credits went to out-of-the-state companies. So Georgia residents pay for an out-of-state company to bring in temporary jobs, then leave.

It’s true that a TV production can stay longer in a state than a movie production – if a show is successful, it can be made for years, albeit on seasonal schedules. But the projects can also abruptly end, finishing employment for many workers. And strikingly few of the jobs that are created are full-time or able to support families.

Of the 232,000+ jobs that the California program claimed to support, 87% were extras and stand ins.

States also tend to disclose total payroll spending without any breakdowns. So a lead actor’s salary is bundled with the stand-ins’ making a pittance. It takes an audit, like the one in Georgia, to point that most wages flow to non-resident big-name actors who earn the most money.

California auditors have pointed to the subsidies’ bias toward large companies that already can access the most investor funding: “[W]e have long raised concerns about tax provisions that favor a small number of businesses at a real cost to all other businesses.”

This Sunshine Week, let’s reflect on how important access to information is, especially for programs that pull public money from general uses (schools, parks, infrastructure) and direct it to private enterprise, like Disney or Amazon Studios.

Let’s urge public officials to add robust transparency requirements to film subsidies, so that we can all judge if subsidization of TV shows is a worthwhile public policy.