In an age of constant technological change, consumers blissfully welcome the ever-growing convenience new innovations provide. But for television writers in Hollywood, some of these advancements may be threatening their careers. After a momentous 148-day strike, writers have finally achieved what they claim is essential job protection in a rapidly changing entertainment industry.
The Writers Guild of America (WGA) represents thousands of film and television writers who have been struggling to make ends meet because of unreliable income and employment in Hollywood. As consumers increasingly prefer streaming services over cable television, writers can no longer rely on steady residual payments they once received each time their show was broadcasted on cable. Since viewers are free to watch a show however many times they want, whenever they want on streaming services, writers lose out on residuals.
The release of ChatGPT opened Pandora’s box for widespread access to impressive artificial intelligence tools. As AI technology performs, with increasing skill, the same tasks that Hollywood writers do as a career, writers feel vulnerable to replacement.
Hollywood’s recent tendency to rapidly cycle through workers is another major concern for writers. Many WGA members work in mini rooms, where they create the first episode of a new series and present it to the studio. In the past, studios often approved these episodes to become long-lived seasons, keeping the original mini room writers employed throughout the project. However, lately, studios have been firing the original mini room writers after approving a show, taking their work without attributing credit, and hiring a new staff to run a show that lasts just a few episodes.
An optimal window of opportunity emerged to improve writers’ situation when WGA’s contract with The Alliance of Motion Picture and Television Producers (AMPTP) expired on May 1, 2023. AMPTP, which represents the entertainment industry’s major studios that employ WGA’s members, refused to negotiate better protection for writers, prompting WGA to overwhelmingly authorize a strike. The neglected and frustrated writers took to the streets on May 2, 2023.
Months of tireless protesting demonstrated writers’ fierce dedication to “fighting for survival,” as one picketer called it. Out of work, they had to find ways to support themselves while simultaneously fearing that the strike would fail, and their life’s work would face a grim future. The writers established themselves by picketing in front of major studios, such as Universal and Netflix, holding signs that cleverly demanded greedy Hollywood executives to “Do the write thing.” The strikers also drew attention when they forced popular television ceremonies, including the Tony Awards and the Daytime Emmy Awards, to postpone and alter their proceedings due to picketing threats.
Hollywood quickly felt the absence of their valuable writers. Studios were unable to produce scripted shows, forcing them to rely on reality shows, talk shows, and sports in their fall 2023 broadcasting (which may come as bad news for viewers excitedly awaiting the next season of their favorite show).
A strike of this magnitude had impacts on the economy that went far beyond the entertainment industry. Kevin Klowden, chief global strategist for the Milken Institute, estimates that the strike incurred $6 billion worth of economic losses for the United States. The economy of Southern California, where most WGA members live, was hit particularly hard as the thousands of writers on strike decreased their local consumption. Pauses in Hollywood filming also meant a loss of work for every business involved in production. All industries, from restaurants to transportation to entertainment, were forced to fire employees and make budget cuts because of the strike’s rippling economic effects.
Eager to put an end to a near record-breaking strike, WGA and AMPTP resumed negotiations and ultimately compromised on most of WGA’s initial objectives, reaching a well-supported contract agreement on Sept. 26, 2023. To ensure writers are fairly paid for streaming platform views, the contract promises writers fixed residual payments from streaming services and a streaming bonus based on a new release’s viewership levels. Improved health benefits and higher minimum incomes will further alleviate the financial struggles often associated with the profession. New AI regulations prevent AI writing from being considered literary material and prohibit studios from using writers’ work to train AI. The contract also guarantees a minimum number of weeks of employment on a project and increases the minimum required staff, further decreasing writers’ unemployment vulnerability. Satisfied with the results of their efforts, 99% of WGA members voted to ratify the new contract, calling it “exceptional – with meaningful gains and protection for writers in every sector of the membership.”
Returning to work after nearly five months of striking, Hollywood writers can now enjoy increased job security and society’s heightened recognition of their value. Writers, studios, and television consumers alike can rest easy knowing that the next season of their favorite Netflix show is on the horizon.
Marina Varriano is from Westchester, NY, studying Public Policy and Music