News Based on facts, either observed and verified directly by the reporter, or reported and verified from knowledgeable sources.
UPDATE: Members of the Writers Guild of America (WGA) officially went on strike on Tuesday, May 2, at 12:01 a.m. Pacific Standard Time, when their union contract with the Alliance of Motion Picture and Television Producers (AMPTP) expired. Late-night TV shows were the first to come to a halt, and other serials are expected to have shortened seasons as a result. WGA’s negotiating committee released a statement on May Day saying, “The companies have broken this business. They have taken so much from the very people, the writers, who have made them wealthy.”
Television has been experiencing a boom in the United States, the likes of which has never been seen before. Just before the COVID-19 pandemic hit, there were 532 scripted TV shows that were broadcast or streamed the year before—an all-time high. In 2022, there were 599. In fact, according to FX Network Research, since 2012 there has been a steady increase in the number of scripted shows, except for a small dip due to the lockdown-related production halt in 2020.
These new heights in television production can be attributed largely to streaming services such as Netflix—a company that has been offering tantalizing on-screen fiction for the past decade, since House of Cards first debuted as an exclusively streaming show on the platform. But the primacy of streaming is also the reason why TV writers are now threatening to go on strike. For years, streaming services have slashed residual payments, which writers rely on, prompting the Writers Guild of America to vote to strike.
The turnout for the WGA vote strike, which took place on April 17, broke records, with nearly 80% of the union’s members casting ballots. Of that number, nearly 98% voted to strike. These numbers are significantly higher than in 2007, the last time WGA members voted to strike and actually carried out their threat (a 2017 strike was narrowly averted). The union, which represents more than 11,000 writers, has the potential to bring the TV industry to a screeching halt if negotiations with media companies, represented by the Alliance of Motion Picture and Television Producers (AMPTP), break down by May 1, the last day of WGA’s current contract.
Three major unions dominate Hollywood’s television industry, representing writers, directors, and actors: the WGA, the Directors Guild of America (DGA), and the Screen Actors Guild–American Federation of Television and Radio Artists (SAG-AFTRA), respectively. Both DGA and SAG-AFTRA will also start negotiations shortly with the AMPTP, ahead of their contracts ending on June 30. There is potential for multiple overlapping strikes in the coming months, leaving Hollywood’s television industry on edge, even as most of the nation enjoys the fruits of its work, blissfully unaware of the tensions brewing between creators and corporate producers.
The stakes are high. Already Netflix is boasting that it can rely on foreign labor to weather a potential WGA strike. The company’s co-CEO Ted Sarandos said a day after the strike authorization vote that if writers went on strike, Netflix had “a large base of upcoming shows and films from around the world,” adding, “We could probably serve our members better than most.” Networks are also stockpiling scripts in preparation for a potential writers’ strike.
TV producers hold massive financial power in an industry whose cultural influence sweeps across the world. While writers, directors, and actors are the ones whose creativity powers the direction of new, innovative content, their bosses—executives at Netflix, Hulu, HBO Max, and Disney—have driven down the costs of labor to maximize profits.
Residuals, which are extra payments made to creative workers each time their shows re-air, used to provide stable incomes for TV workers in between jobs. Streaming services negotiated minuscule residuals years ago when they were minor players within the TV landscape. Now, although they dominate the scene, streaming producers are continuing to pay their workers insultingly low residuals. Worse, many creators are finding that platforms will disappear their projects altogether in order to get a tax write-off and avoid having to pay them.
TV producers are also cutting costs by canceling shows abruptly—a move that could disproportionately impact diversity on-screen. Television is one of the world’s most powerful narrative-setting industries, influencing culture in ways that can determine day-to-day policies. According to GLAAD, “For many Americans, it was television shows that gave them their first images of same-sex couples, and a chance to recognize the commonalities with their own lives.” This in turn helped lay the foundation for the legalization of same-sex marriage within years.
Television has the potential to do the same for racial justice issues. According to the latest Hollywood Diversity Report, “people of color have made tremendous advances among broadcast, cable, and digital leads in recent years,” and “Black and multiracial persons exceeded proportionate representation among leads in 2020–21 for cable and digital scripted shows.” Still, the report concludes that there is not enough parity overall.
Now, in search of profits, TV producers are cutting costs by canceling already greenlighted projects. “[T]he streaming explosion has lost steam,” declared MarketWatch. TV networks and streaming platforms ordered nearly a quarter fewer shows in the second half of last year compared to the year before. John Landgraf, chairman of FX Networks, who is credited with coining the term “Peak TV,” worries that cost cutting will impact the representation of racially diverse communities.
It appears as though, in addition to using foreign-sourced projects and stockpiling scripts as leverage, TV’s corporate executives plan to approach union negotiations by touting the notion that television output is peaking, and therefore costs such as baseline pay and residuals cannot be increased.
Yet media companies have enough money to buy one another, spending billions on mergers and acquisitions. A year ago, Amazon acquired MGM Studios for $8.5 billion; and Warner Brothers, which owned HBO Max, merged with Discovery to the tune of $43 billion. Earlier this year, Showtime announced a merger with Paramount+. Predictably, these companies are announcing cuts to their workforce to pay for such consolidations.
But workers still have leverage. David Slack, a WGA union member and a writer and consulting producer on Magnum P.I., told the Washington Post, “The power to withhold our labor is the only tool we have to get the studios to pay us what’s fair.” He added, “Our products are the foundation for all the billions of dollars of revenue that these entertainment companies generate, and we need to be compensated for that.” Los Angeles Times columnist Mary McNamara distilled the dynamic succinctly: “If studios and platforms want to be in the original scripted content business, they need to make that business work for the people writing those scripts. It’s that simple.”
The last time TV writers went on strike, it lasted a whopping 100 days and cost the economy of Los Angeles more than $2 billion. If writers go on a prolonged strike, there will be a ripple effect, putting actors and directors out of work as well. There can be no scripted television if no one is writing the scripts.
This article was produced by Economy for All, a project of the Independent Media Institute.Categories
Sonali Kolhatkar is currently the racial justice editor at YES! Media and a writing fellow with Independent Media Institute. She was previously a weekly columnist for Truthdig.com. She is also the host and creator of Rising Up with Sonali, a nationally syndicated television and radio program airing on Free Speech TV and dozens of independent and community radio stations. Sonali won First Place at the Los Angeles Press Club Annual Awards for Best Election Commentary in 2016. She also won numerous awards including Best TV Anchor from the LA Press Club and has also been nominated as Best Radio Anchor 4 years in a row. She is the author of Bleeding Afghanistan: Washington, Warlords, and the Propaganda of Silence, and the co-director of the nonprofit group, Afghan Women's Mission. Her forthcoming book is Rising Up: The Power of Narrative in Pursuing Racial Justice (City Lights, 2023). She has a Master’s in Astronomy from the University of Hawai’i, and two undergraduate degrees in Physics and Astronomy from the University of Texas at Austin. She reflects on her professional path in her 2014 TEDx talk, “My Journey From Astrophysicist to Radio Host.” She can be reached at sonalikolhatkar.com