With the recent roll out of Max, an amalgam of HBO Max and Discovery+, and just-released, stunning show-enders for the programs “Succession” and “Barry,” you could be forgiven if you’ve forgotten there is a writers’ strike on.
The Writers Guild of America, which represents 11,500 writers, began the stoppage May 2, protesting the pay structure of the Alliance of Motion Picture and Television Producers.
Many shows have already been affected by the strike, including “Abbott Elementary” and late-night talk shows like “The Daily Show.”
So, what are the issues and what happens if there is a protracted strike? Are viewers in for more reality television? And what about season four of “Stranger Things?”
UVA Today turned Shilpa Davé, an assistant professor in media studies and American studies, to get her expert take on the situation and learn what she thinks the future might hold if the strike is protracted.
Q. Can you set the scene for our readers?
A. The two sides involved in the contract negotiations are the Alliance of Motion Picture and Television Producers, which represents the main studios, including Amazon, Apple, Netflix, Paramount, Sony, Universal and Warner Bros, versus the Writer’s Guild of America. The studios negotiate with the Screen Actors Guild and the Director’s Guild in separate contracts. The Director’s Guild struck a tentative deal with Hollywood producers Sunday ahead of a June 30 deadline. The deal with the Screen Actors’ Guild also expires at the end of June, so this is putting pressure on the studios to work out contracts with the different unions that develop content for the studios as all are interdependent.
Q. What has been the immediate fallout?
A. As a result of the strike, some of the fall shows we were looking forward to watching have been delayed, including season three of the Emmy Award-winning “Abbott Elementary” and season four of “Stranger Things.” Already, all late-night comedy shows have shut down and are in reruns. With picket lines in front of the major studios in Los Angeles, the two sides do not seem to be nearing a deal.
The last big writer’s strike started in November of 2007 and lasted 100 days. The hope is that the strike will be resolved before the end of the summer and especially before the Emmy Awards show in September, which celebrates all shows on the small/streaming screens.
Q. What is the difference between this strike and the 2007 work stoppage?
A. As many have pointed out, the last strike and major contract dispute was prior to the advent of original content on streaming networks and channels. Most services were ad-based or subscription-based revenue models on network or cable television. Given the changing conditions of media outlets, the increase in international serials and the increase in expectations for new content in a post-pandemic climate, it’s inevitable that the Writers Guild of America would like a new contract.
Q. What’s the new tangle?
A. The main issues are pay, compensation and security. As streaming series have become more popular since 2016, there’s been a rapid reduction from the 22-episode season to the 12-episode season to even six- to eight-episode series. With less episodes, writers are making less money per series. Some writers can work on multiple series, but depending on the terms, some may be bound [by contract] to one series. In addition, many writers work for an entry-level or minimum basic agreement despite seniority or expertise. So, there is less work and less pay.
I think another part of this conflict is that series writers are often invisible to the public eye. Actors are the celebrities and faces of series and directors are the managers and coordinators. Writers are the words we hear and often quote. We talk about the importance of writing and communication in education, but how do we see these skills valued professionally? The Writers’ Guild of America represents the profession of writing in the entertainment industry and are advocating for the importance of writing as a profession.
Q. What are residuals?
A. Credited writers on produced projects receive compensation when an episode or series is reused or rerun. This is known as residual pay, or residuals, and the rate per episode is negotiated by the union. The main thing the union is arguing for is assurance a series writer can make a living as a screenwriter on a major series if the work is recognized in reruns or serialization or in awards season, continuing to receive credit and compensation for their work.
[Previously,] if a show was popular or getting critical acclaim, writers and showrunners would be compensated for their good work. But pay increases have not necessarily been matching the changes in the length of a show, consumption patterns or advertiser revenue.
Q. Pre-streaming, how were programs evaluated?
A. The Nielsen ratings were a system of seeing what households were watching and then, based on the popularity of a show, charging the advertisers who wanted to appeal to a particular demographic a larger amount of money to show their messages. This could include car companies, political ads, pharmaceutical ads, or ads for large companies that promote cleaning products, or chips, or beer.
Over-the-air networks are advertisement-based models that generate profits from the money advertisers pay to promote their merchandise or brand. The more advertisers pay for their commercials, the more money the network makes and then in turn can offer to specific series in terms of raises and promotion. Networks pay for series or the rights to broadcast shows, including the Super Bowl.
The Writer’s Guild of America represents writers for scripted series. These revenues in turn contribute to the budget that studios can offer to successful series and new shows and their writers, directors and producers.
Q. How do streaming services document and value their programs?
A. Streaming services like Netflix, Amazon and Apple TV are subscription platforms, so their financial model is based on the number of people paying for subscriptions. How they track what is popular and how they share their data is not transparent. Other streaming services, such as Hulu or Paramount Plus or Peacock, have hybrid models where you can pay a lower fee for series with advertisements or a higher fee to watch shows without advertisements.
Q. Why are streaming services like Netflix and Amazon so cagey about sharing streaming figures?
A. The companies want to keep their competitive advantage and not reveal what they believe is sensitive data to their competitors. They would rather focus on their subscriptions, which are what generates revenue for them. In addition, the algorithms that generate the data are not universal, so there are questions about how to analyze the data and create a comparative scale.
For writers and other content producers, the lack of information makes it difficult to negotiate compensation and contracts. Sometimes Netflix and other companies do release information about certain series but it’s up to them.
Q. If this strike is protracted, when are viewers going to see more disruption in content? Do you see more reality television on the horizon?
A. If the strike is protracted, we’ll see the ripple effect on all aspects of production and all the people who work on series and support the entertainment industry. Right now, it’s mostly television and small-screen series, but if there is an extended negotiation into the fall, numerous film productions will be impacted.
Reality television is a different genre and, as audiences, we want to see our dramas and comedies and scripted series, but we like reality television, too. For example, there are successful and fan-favorite shows like “Survivor” and “The Voice.” We would see an uptick in the broadcast of reality television or unscripted series and live-action sporting events, and maybe some other types of innovative programming that have not been tried yet.