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The issues behind possible Hollywood writers' strike that could halt film, TV production


Notice: Transcripts are machine and human generated and lightly edited for accuracy. They may contain errors.

Geoff Bennett: At midnight Pacific time, the current contract between Hollywood writers and major studios will expire, potentially affecting over 800,000 jobs. That's if last-minute negotiations break down and a strike begins.

More than 11,000 Hollywood TV and film writers are likely to walk off the job today. The immediate impact? America's, favorite late-night programing, including "Jimmy Kimmel Live" and "The Tonight Show Starring Jimmy Fallon," will be dark.

Writers Guild of America officials are demanding higher wages and better working conditions. They say many of their concerns stem from the industry's greater emphasis on streaming. The last time WGA members traded their pens for picket lines was 15 years ago. The guild essentially shut down Hollywood for 100 days, having crippling effects on the industry and the communities that support it.

What's different now? Some strikers say their focus is not only on current conditions, but the future of the profession. The Writers Guild is using this video to rally members.

Tian Jun Gu, Writer: The greatest challenge, I would say, is probably finding consistent paying jobs. And I think it's changed a lot more since I was coming up, just the amount of free work that you have to do on the TV development side.

Geoff Bennett: And the role of artificial intelligence is a new concern for Hollywood writers and actors.

Jason Bateman, Actor and Director: Yes. No, I'm not interested in directly a (EXPLETIVE DELETED) movie that a robot writes. No.

Geoff Bennett: Speaking to his audience earlier this month, late-night host Seth Meyers shared his thoughts on the looming strike.

Seth Meyers, Host, "Late Night With Seth Meyers": I also feel very strongly that what the writers are asking for is not unreasonable. And as a proud member of the guild, I'm very grateful that there's an organization that looks out for the best interests of writers.

Geoff Bennett: As Writers Guild members tried to secure their place and the industry's future.

And joining us now to add some context is Anousha Sakoui, who reports on the entertainment industry and labor issues in Hollywood for The Los Angeles Times.

Thanks for being with us.

And, Anousha, as you well know, for decades and decades, TV writers could depend on a broadcast TV season that started in September and ended in May, roughly nine months of work spent producing anywhere between 22 to 24 episodes.

How has the shift to streaming up ended that model and really affected writers' compensation?

Anousha Sakoui, The Los Angeles Times: There are several ways that it's affected compensation.

And one of the ways you sort of highlighting there is that streaming companies have increasingly moved towards shorter seasons of shows. So, if something like "Bridgerton" has only eight -- its first season that had only eight episodes. So, the writers have the opportunity only of working on a shorter number of episodes.

So, especially if they're paid per episode, that diminishes how much they're paid. And if they're paid weekly, the WGA has said that some writers are working as few as 14 weeks on these shows, whereas, as you said, sometimes they were working as much as 10 in the sort of days of yore, when broadcast networks dominated.

So that's just one way.

Geoff Bennett: And what about the residuals? Because writers say they're concerned about that issue too.

Anousha Sakoui: Every time a show is sort of re-aired, these used to be huge amounts of money for writers and could sustain them for the down, leaner years between shows that they worked on.

Now, in the age of streaming, what they're finding and arguing is that they're not paid as much. Some of these streamers get discounts in terms of how much they pay compared to others, depending on the number of subscribers they have. So they're generally finding that these royalties or residuals aren't seeing them through the leaner times in the way that they could have done when most of their content was on broadcast.

Geoff Bennett: I was talking with a TV executive over the weekend who made the point that the writers have legitimate concerns, but that the timing could not be worse.

Right now, pain is being felt across the board. And many of these media companies and tech companies that use the writers, they have seen their stock prices drop. They are cutting costs. They are laying people off. What's the argument that the companies are making in these talks?

Anousha Sakoui: Yes, I mean, it's an interesting point, because there's apparently never a good time to be making these kinds of asks.

I mean, the writers are asking for a package of increases and improvements that are valued at around $600 million a year. But they come at a time when studios are being hit with restructuring and layoffs. Disney, for example, is laying off thousands of people.

They're investing less in production and in content. But the writers argue that the studios remain profitable compared to recent years, and they're still looking to invest something like $19 billion in streaming in 2023.

We have also seen headlines about, like, Apple and Amazon wanting to dedicate a lot more money towards street towards stream -- towards releasing the movies in theaters, for example, so expanding their content dedication, if you like.

So, there, writers are arguing that, actually, studios are in a good state to pay them what they want.

Geoff Bennett: How are writers thinking about the threats posed by artificial intelligence? Right now, the A.I. tools that you could use to write a script or write a screenplay, they're pretty rudimentary, but that technology is advancing at a fairly alarming rate.

Anousha Sakoui: I think there's a really interesting echo to like the 2007-2008 strike, when technology, when it was streaming, was a very big issue.

And the writers went on strike to effectively get access to payment compensation for their content on streaming. Today, they're trying to get ahead of a new technological advancement, which is artificial intelligence. And there's a huge amount of concern that this new technology will be used to put them out of jobs, basically.

So, the WGA has effectively put in its demands and as a part of this negotiation that's going on, they have asked for regulating A.I. and how it's used in writing, and to put limits on it.

Geoff Bennett: What would a strike mean for TV viewers, Anousha?

Anousha Sakoui: Right.

Well, that's going to be an interesting question to see how it pans out. If it happens, we believe that the first shows that will be impacted on late-night, which is filmed live and is WGA-covered work. So expect to not see your favorite late night show host. Seth Meyers has already addressed, that he might not be on TV this coming week.

So there's that. And then, also, new seasons of your favorite shows that might have premiered in the fall might get delayed if their production had not wrapped by the time of the strike.

Geoff Bennett: Anousha Sakoui of The Los Angeles Times, thanks so much for sharing your reporting with us.

Anousha Sakoui: Thank you.

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