Hollywood’s writers are on strike — and the ongoing conflict may affect some of your favorite shows.
The Writers Guild of America (WGA) is a labor union representing roughly 11,500 writers for TV and film. The Alliance of Motion Picture and Television Producers (AMPTP) represents eight major studios: Amazon, Apple, Disney, Netflix, Sony, Warner Brothers, NBC Universal, and Paramount. Disagreements between the two sides have led writers to walk off the job, in their first strike since 2007.
After six weeks of negotiation with AMPTP, the WGA announced that members would go on strike starting at 12:01 AM on May 2. This means that no WGA member will write any new scripts for TV shows or movies until the WGA votes to end the strike. (Those who work in radio, streaming news, or public TV will stay on the job, according to Vox Media.) The goal of the strike is to force the AMPTP to negotiate a new deal — preferably one that honors the union’s requests.
The WGA negotiates a new contract with the studios every three years. But negotiations have broken down this time because the sides are so far apart. “The WGA Negotiating Committee began this process intent on making a fair deal, but the studios’ responses have been wholly insufficient given the existential crisis writers are facing. The companies’ behavior has created a gig economy inside a union workforce,” the WGA said in a statement. Back in April, the WGA voted — by a 97.85% margin — to authorize a strike if no deal was reached by May 1.)
At the core of the dispute are issues related to the rise of streaming services and the emergence of AI (artificial intelligence). These two technical changes present challenges for writers and their ability to make a living.
Instead of traditional broadcast and cable TV, more and more people are turning to streaming services. Instead of watching CBS, NBC, or ABC, more viewers are watching online platforms like Hulu, Netflix, Amazon Prime, Paramount+, and HBO Max. Last year, streaming services got more viewers than cable or broadcast for the first time ever, per Nielsen. But this streaming boom has affected writers.
Before streaming, writers could make money by selling an idea for a film or TV series to a studio. TV executives would order a series and a “writers’ room” would assemble: a group of writers would gather to write about 20-22 episodes of a series. Writers could gain experience in their field and eventually move up to become showrunners. (According to MasterClass, a showrunner finalizes scripts, oversees budgets, selects/approves all writing staff, and assigns episodes to writers.)
Now, as streaming grows, studios have “mini-rooms” in which smaller groups (2-3 writers, as opposed to 7-8 or more) are hired to write episodes of a show before it even gets picked up. This saves studios money, but writers get paid less, and the often-combined roles of writing and production are separated. As Vox puts it: “The mini-room model makes writers as disposable as possible and ensures they’re not even around (and thus getting paid) when production begins.”
Streamers also order fewer episodes (6-10 versus 22), meaning writers are working for shorter periods of time. Writers work 20-24 weeks on streaming shows, as opposed to 29-40 weeks in network TV, per the WGA. That means writers are paid less for each job. This affects their rates of minimum basic agreement, or MBA — kind of like a minimum wage for writers, Vox says. The average weekly pay for the lowest-paid writers is roughly $4,500 a week, per Variety.) The chart below shows streaming’s effect on writers and their pay.
Median weekly writer-producer pay has declined 4% over the past decade. Adjusting for inflation, that’s a 23% drop. (When accounting for inflation, median screenwriter pay has declined 14% since 2018.) And despite working similar hours, showrunners also make less: median weekly pay for showrunners on streaming series is 46% lower than on broadcast shows.
So, writers are working less and taking home less pay on streaming shows. And income that would help them bridge the gap are also dwindling. That brings us to another issue: residuals. They’re like royalties for screenwriters. If you write for a show and a network buys the rights to air it, you get a check. If the show is popular and runs in syndication (like Friends, Living Single or even House of Payne), you receive a residual check — often a critical source of income for writers. But residuals for streaming series are lower than for broadcast.
The WGA has proposed improvements to these issues, as shown in the left column below. As you can see, the Guild and the AMPTP are still far apart on terms for an agreement.
The WGA has proposed minimums for writers’ room size and for employment span. But the AMPTP explained its resistance to the WGA’s proposal to institute a minimum size for writers’ rooms, as well as a minimum duration of employment. “While the WGA has argued that the proposal is necessary to ‘preserv[e] the writers’ room,’ it is in reality a hiring quota that is incompatible with the creative nature of our industry. We don’t agree with applying a one-size-fits-all solution to shows that are unique and different in their approach to creative staffing,” the AMPTP says.
Another issue for the writers is AI. Writers want strict limits on how artificial intelligence is used. Essentially, they don’t want to rewrite AI-generated material or have AI rewrite human scripts. There’s also concern that, someday, an AI tool could be used to generate a plot idea or script; then writers would be hired to revise (or “punch it up”) at a lower rate.
So, the WGA proposed limits on AI during negotiations. GQ explains: “The WGA proposed regulating the use of so-called generative AI in writers’ rooms—preventing AI from “writing” or changing material covered by the Minimum Basic Agreement, preventing it from being used as source material from adaptations, and ensuring that MBA material can’t be used to train these programs.” The AMPTP countered by offering “annual meetings to discuss advances in technology.”
So how will this strike affect all your favorite shows? It depends on what kind of shows they are. The season finale of NBC’s Saturday Night Live is still up in the air. Late-night talk shows are the first to be affected: The Tonight Show Starring Jimmy Fallon, The Late Show with Stephen Colbert, Jimmy Kimmel Live, Late Night with Seth Meyers, and The Daily Show will all go dark this week. The effect on streaming series has yet to be seen, but some broadcast shows have already altered course.
Writers for the ABC sitcom Abbott Elementary were supposed to start work on the third season on May 2 — the day the strike started. Now, when the show will resume production is unclear. “Everything is in flux because of the strike,” actress Sheryl Lee Ralph told TODAY. Series creator and star Quinta Brunson (who won an Emmy last year for writing the show’s pilot) issued statements of solidarity with her fellow writers.
Brunson tweeted on May 2: “I am a writer. I’m in the WGA. I’m also on strike! I have no real power here other than to join my union in demanding fair compensation for writers!” In another tweet, Brunson wrote, “This week you’ll probably find me on picket line. This strike also isn’t about me, and I don’t want to make it about me. It’s about all writers 🙂 support the WGA. No show or movie you love is written without… writers.”