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The Writers Guild of America is on strike, and an important part of the entertainment industry could be in for a lengthy work stoppage.
By many accounts, the TV and film industry is overdue for a reckoning, after the pandemic made the 2020 contract bargaining season a bad one. That prevented writers and their employers, represented by the Alliance of Motion Picture and Television Producers, from reaching new agreements on emerging technologies and business practices.
“No one cares if you go on strike in the spring of 2020. It doesn’t matter, because no one is working anyway,” Kate Fortmueller, an assistant professor of entertainment and media studies at the University of Georgia, told NPR.
The build-up of unresolved issues is just one reason, Fortmueller said, that the 2023 strike could take a while.
“I think this has the potential to be one of the longer strikes,” he said. “I think it has the potential to be one of the big ones.”
Here’s a quick guide to what’s different about this strike:
What has changed in streaming?
Writers and production companies are grappling with how to reconcile different ideas of how the media business should handle streaming platforms. This is a new version of their long-standing dispute over outstanding payments — the money writers get when their material is reused. And compared to the last big strike, which lasted from 2007 to 2008, new players are involved.
“What’s new about this is who’s at the table, frankly,” Fortmueller said, listing companies like Amazon, Apple and Netflix.
“We have not seen them as part of these negotiations in the past,” he added. “So I don’t think that’s a wild card, but it changes some of the stakes.”
As a reference point, Fortmueller cited the lengthy strike between SAG-AFTRA and video game makers that ended in 2017.
Video game companies and streaming companies share key characteristics, he said, noting that the tech industry’s working conditions and standards differ from those in Hollywood.
“They are not heavily unionized industries,” he added. “So I think they take a harder line on a lot of these things.”
Why are mini rooms a big deal?
The growth of streaming shows is linked to a controversial topic: the shrinking of writers’ rooms, becoming “mini rooms,” where there are fewer writers than a traditional room to work with. Where some rooms traditionally employ as many as seven writers (or more than twice that, for some series), small rooms go through a handful of them, on a short-term basis.
“Mini rooms are essentially streamers that get writers to come in and basically ‘break’ stories,” Fortmueller said.
That means breaking up a season and restructuring it — but in this arrangement, writers are paid the union minimum over their normal fees, and they’re not kept on the payroll for long.
“They’re effectively creating shows, even shortened season shows, for a fraction of the price,” Fortmueller said. Instead of paying writers more over a longer period of time, he added, streaming companies are “asking them to do heavier lifting in a shorter amount of time.”
It’s a particularly common tactic, he said, for studios looking to create scripts for a six- or eight-episode season. That has led to claims that writers are being treated as gig workers: Instead of joining a show for what could be a successful and profitable run, writers on a small rooms usually get union-guaranteed minimum rates for short assignments.
Production companies say the model helps them evaluate a show more thoroughly before committing to an entire series. But the writers say the practice stifles their contributions and reduces their pay.
“I do all the work I would do with a full room of writers, and I get paid a fraction of my normal quote,” one writer recently said. Indie Wire.
What should viewers expect?
The strike and its disputes raise ethical questions for Fortmueller as a spectator. On the one hand, he says, there are so many shows to watch, and only so much time. But he also wants to support full-length shows, and the writers behind them.
“Maybe it’s better for me to invest my time in shows with better working conditions, which help keep people working,” he said. But when people reach decision fatigue, he added, “the lure of a little commitment is pretty strong.”
The last major strike lasted for more than three months, from 2007 to 2008. Back then, people were worried about the fate of beloved shows like Gray’s Anatomy. In the meantime, they turned on their DVD players to watch the first seasons of The wire and binge shows like Friday Night Lights and What I Call Life.
Those who continue to tune in to TV have seen expanded reality TV offerings, such as Project Runway and The Biggest Loser, which are defined as unscripted shows. People flocked to “reality” again in 2020, as viewers escaped the pandemic shutdown by watching Tiger King.
“As far as the audience’s perspective, I’m not sure the impact will be as strong in terms of what we’re experiencing,” Fortmueller said. He said spring and summer are often not the strongest seasons for TV — and then there are streaming platforms with content in their pipelines, including material from international markets.
But for streaming companies, licensing more content will only help fill the gaps, Fortmueller added.
“Long term, they can’t count on that, because a lot of their business model is about attracting new subscribers with new shows. So ultimately, it can only take so long before it starts to hurt them. “