The writer, director and producer revolutionized prime time television with such topical hits as "All in the Family" and "Maude"…
Hollywood faces larger work stoppage as actors threaten to strike alongside writers
Geoff Bennett: The actors union SAG-AFTRA has called for a strike authorization vote. If the strike is approved, actors could join the more than 11,000 Writers Guild members already on the picket line, putting even more pressure on studios and networks.
The ongoing writers strike has halted production movies and scripted series like "Stranger Things" on Netflix, Apple TV's "Severance" and Showtime's "Yellowjackets." Late-night TV shows have already gone dark.
For more on the strike and what's at stake, I'm joined by two television writers and Writers Guild members, Sal Gentile and Jeane Phan Wong.
Thank you both for being with us.
And, Jeane, we will start with you.
This is day 17 of the strike. How are you and other writers faring? And remind us of what it is that you're demanding.
Jeane Phan Wong, Member, Writers Guild of America: We're basically asking for less than 2 percent of profits that they make from writer content, when it comes down to it.
And sustainable wages to be able to have a career in entertainment is what we're asking for. And I was just out on the picket line this morning and felt really good with morale and all of us are -- I drove in. I had a two-hour commute because I'm house-sitting out of town. It just felt really good morale just to see everyone, and especially when people drop off food.
It's always nice when people feed the writers.
Geoff Bennett: So, Jeane, streaming has dramatically transformed the industry. This is a prolific era in American entertainment.
One would think that compensation would reflect that. Why hasn't it?
Jeane Phan Wong: There's a huge influence of the tech industry on streaming and the way that writers are being compensated.
So, I'm both a television and a new feature writer. And, in television, our employment, we're paid weekly, and the average number of weeks that a writer is working in a room has gone down a lot. And, oftentimes, writers are forced to stretch the money that they make in such a short amount of time over a longer time, and even, in some writers, some contracts with options exclusivity.
Sometimes, writers are held and they can't even find other work. And in feature writing, there's just a lot that we're asking for, more than a one-step deal, because there's a lot of free work. And I know that sounds insane, but there's a lot of just free labor that's being asked as sort of like a courtesy and whatnot.
And so, basically, a lot of the tech industry has this -- like, devalued ask for more work, sometimes free work, for less money, and asking writers to stretch our salaries over a long time.
Geoff Bennett: And, Sal, you work in late-night. That's a high-pressure job, long hours. You have to be funny every day. You can't necessarily wait for the muse to strike.
How have the changes in the industry that Jeane is talking about, how has that affected the work that you and your colleagues do?
Sal Gentile, Member, Writers Guild of America: Well, so I'm incredibly, lucky because my show is on a broadcast network. And so we benefit from protections that the Guild has fought for and collectively bargained for over many years.
We benefit from protections such as minimum pay and residuals for the reuse of our material. And that makes it possible for writers to have a livable career and to go from project to project.
And the fear is that, because we all know streaming is here, and not only is it here, but it will continue to be the future, that will go away for all writers across the Guild, but especially in particularly for late-night and comedy variety writers, because the studios have essentially proposed taking all of those protections for late-night writers and comedy variety writers away.
And, as you mentioned, it's a high-pressure job. You have to respond to the news every single day and write jokes about the news every single day. And it's really hard to do that without the security, at least some minimum level of guarantee about what your contract is going to say. And the studios would like, in the future, if these shows are exclusively on streaming, to pay writers, not a minimum, not the residuals, but to pay a day rate, which would not make it a sustainable career for anybody.
And so, because I love the type of writing I do, I love late-night writing, I love writing jokes about the news, I want to -- I want to make sure it remains a sustainable career, both for myself and my colleagues and for people who come after us, because there's going to be plenty more insane news for the shows to make fun of.
Geoff Bennett: Sal, a sticking point in the writer strike has to do with artificial intelligence.
A.I. is already being used in entertainment writing. What are some of the concerns that you and your colleagues have?
Sal Gentile: Yes, so I want to establish one thing, which is that writers are not naive about technology. We know that A.I. is here. And we know that it's the future.
And we want to make sure that we can use it as a tool creatively, in the creative process, rather than being replaced by it. And so I think, for example, the nightmare scenario, the fear is that studios will use A.I. to generate really bad scripts, or, let's say, in my case, really bad jokes about the news. And then they will bring in a writer at a much lower rate with many fewer writers in a room to improve a bad script generated by A.I. and make it good enough to use on television or in film.
And so we want to just -- we just want basic protections in place to make sure that they can't do that. We're not saying A.I. is going to go away. We're simply saying, let's put basic protections in place that will make sure it doesn't replace us, but that we can use the technology as part of the creative process.
Geoff Bennett: And we should say we reached out to the group that's representing the studios to participate in this discussion, and they said they don't speak on the record about ongoing negotiations.
But, Jeane, I will tell you, I spoke with a studio executive who made the point that the studios right now can literally afford to wait out the strike because they are in a cost-cutting mode right now. And this work stoppage for them is a savings. These are temporary savings.
How long are you prepared to stay out in the picket line?
Jeane Phan Wong: I prepare to stay out as long as it takes, because the fight for -- to have a sustainable career, it's an existential fight, for writers to be able to make a living, and it's also a fight for a lot of working-class and middle-class writers.
We have a robust strike fund. I have applied to it just in case. And I will stay out here as long as I need to, and as people are sending food, and it's been great to march and picket with other unions.
Geoff Bennett: Sal, how do you see it? And what would it mean if SAG-AFTRA, if the performers union, if the directors union joined this effort?
Sal Gentile: The cross-union solidarity has been incredible on the picket lines. We have been joined by our friends and colleagues from unions across the industry.
And, as you noted, SAG has already called for a strike authorization vote, because everybody recognizes that this is an existential moment for the industry at large. The streaming era has broken the profit-sharing model that already existed that was in place. It was imperfect, but it was there.
Make sure that the people who work in this industry can sustain a livable career, and it's not an industry just for the lucky few, and but for everybody across all of these unions and guilds. And so everybody recognizes that. And I have felt the same incredible energy on the picket lines.
I know everybody, as much as we love writing and as much as we want to get back to our jobs as writers, everybody is committed to this cause and seeing it through across all of the sister unions that have joined us on the picket line.
Geoff Bennett: Sal Gentile and Jeane Phan Wong, thank you both for sharing your perspectives with us. I appreciate it.
Jeane Phan Wong: Thank you.
Sal Gentile: Thank you.