Writers Guild downs tools in protest against ‘uberization’ of their jobs in the streaming era

writers guild workers strike against Netflix-style streaming services
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On 2 May, thousands of Writers Guild of America (WGA) workers downed tools and picketed studios in New York and Los Angeles. 11,000 union members walked off the job for the first time in 15 years. They’re striking over pay and conditions in the Netflix-style streaming era

The industrial action came after talks between the Writers Guild of America (WGA) and the studios’ Alliance of Motion Picture and Television Producers (AMPTP) collapsed. It could hit television series and movies scheduled for release as early as later this year if it continues.

The strike could also have wider implications, and the industry fears a ripple effect. Several other Hollywood unions have voiced solidarity with writers, including the Screen Actors Guild and the Directors Guild of America. Both will hold their own talks with studios this summer.

Changing media landscape

The WGA are highlighting the problems with the way writers are treated by streaming sites, in particular. The writers are demanding higher pay, minimum guarantees of stable employment, and a greater share of profits from the boom in streaming.

The WGA said on Monday 1 May that the studios’ response to its proposals had been:

wholly insufficient, given the existential crisis writers are facing.

Writers say it is becoming impossible to earn a living, as salaries have flatlined or declined after inflation. Meanwhile, employers are reaping profits and fattening executives’ paychecks, as some picketers pointed out:

Read on...

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The last time the WGA members laid down their pens, in 2007, the strike lasted 100 days. It hit LA’s entertainment economy for a cost of around $2bn, and suddenly curtailed many popular shows. Striking workers, of course, were happy to point out this fact:

Gig economy of TV

In the era of streaming, almost half of TV writers receive only the union-mandated minimum wage, compared to just a third in 2014. This means even highly experienced writers are feeling the financial pressure.

Some, like screenwriter Adam Pava, say Hollywood has been contaminated by the culture and business practices of Silicon Valley – home of Uber and Netflix:

Executives are doing things in a way that is much more inspired by the traditions of the tech world, as opposed to the old Hollywood world…

Everything is much more gig-based. It’s based on saving money in every way you can, and it’s much less artist-friendly.

A major source of disagreement during talks was the growing trend for TV shows to hire fewer writers, for shorter durations, to script series. As talks collapsed on 1 May, the WGA accused studios of seeking to create a “gig economy” in which writing would become an “entirely freelance profession”.

The long-standing model of network television, in which writers would be hired for months at a time to work on seasons composed of 20 or more episodes, has been disrupted by streaming giants like Netflix. Today, seasons commissioned by streaming platforms can be as short as six episodes. Often, they’re all written before filming begins.

As a result, work is rarer and writing teams are smaller. Plus, it makes gaining the valuable on-set experience needed to rise up the ranks even more of a challenge.

Streaming issues

Another issue on the table is reworking the formula that calculates how writers are paid for streaming shows. For decades, writers have been paid residuals from each reuse of their material, such as television reruns or DVD sales.

There used to be the possibility for residuals to be very high for hit shows on traditional, advertising-driven TV. They traditionally provided a financial cushion for writers during periods when they were not working due to the intermittent nature of production. This is particularly important for workers living in New York and LA, where the cost of living is extremely high.

However, on streaming sites the shows often remain on platforms like Netflix years after being written. With streaming, writers only receive a fixed annual payout. Even if their work generates a smash hit, the sites keep accurate viewing figures secret. Shows are then streamed by hundreds of millions of viewers around the world, without writers seeing a further cent of the profits:

Solidarity from the UK

Meanwhile, across the pond, the Writers Guild of Great Britain (WGGB) offered its support for its US counterpart. Guild chair Lisa Holdsworth said:

We continue to show our solidarity with our sister union and their members in the US as they embark on industrial action to secure fair pay, decent working conditions and to gain their rightful share in the future financial successes of their work.

We know that strike action is a last resort and one that requires individual sacrifice. The resounding majority of WGA members who voted for this action have shown the collective strength of their feeling and their resolve to stand firm on issues that affect writers the world over.

She added:

I know that my fellow WGGB members will share my message of solidarity to our colleagues overseas, and I know many will also have understandable concerns about the impact on their work here, at a time when the traditional boundaries around genre and jurisdiction fall away, and when writers here face their own challenges. We’re your union – we’re here to support and advise you, and now is no different – so don’t hesitate to reach out to us.

The content void

The Writers Guild strike is, like any other industrial action, a reminder that companies will try to use any technological innovation – be it automation, streaming, or artificial intelligence – to increase their profits at the expense of the workers.

In the end, however, it isn’t the companies that produce the services we enjoy. Neither is it the executives, or the shareholders. Ultimately, the writers – and the actors, the techs, the producers – make the shows we love. And, like any other workers, they have the power to withdraw their labour.

The streaming giants would do well to remember that fact:

Featured image via YouTube screenshot/The Independent

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