Golden Age of TV is not so golden for writers: Why the Writers Guild of America is moving closer to a strike

From the Los Angeles Times:

A decade ago, Hollywood writers brought the entertainment industry to a standstill when they walked off the job for three months in a dispute over pay for movies and TV shows distributed online. The strike halted dozens of TV and movie productions and sent shock waves through the Los Angeles economy.

Now, the Hollywood community is feeling a sense of déjà vu as the possibility of another strike looms large. After the collapse of talks with the major studios, the Writers Guild of America is seeking a strike authorization vote from members. While the union has until May 1 to reach an agreement, tensions are as high as they’ve been in years, say people close to the negotiations not authorized to comment.

The charged atmosphere is the result of a perfect storm of economic and digital changes bearing down on the business. Since the last writers strike, the industry has seen far-reaching shifts. Streaming services like Netflix and Amazon have transformed Hollywood and contributed to an unprecedented number of quality series being produced — a phenomenon often described as the new Golden Age of TV.

But times haven’t been golden for many writers for whom more is now less. Shorter seasons are the new norm, with many series consisting of 10 or fewer episodes on cable and streaming — less than half the length of traditional seasons on network shows. That has put writers in a financial crunch since many have exclusivity clauses that prevent them from working on multiple shows per season.

. . . .

“It’s getting more and more difficult to make a living as a writer,” said John Bowman, a TV writer-producer, and former head of the WGA negotiating committee.

Studios are equally dug in as more customers cut the cable cord in favor of streaming options. They’re also grappling with a dramatic fall-off in once-lucrative DVD sales and a flattening of attendance at the multiplex. They are releasing fewer titles a year, meaning fewer opportunities for screenwriters.

All of this has set the stage for conflict. A strike authorization vote is set to take place mid-April. The move is a typical negotiating tactic by unions, but the WGA said it’s a response to the hard-line position taken by the studios, which have so far refused most of their demands.

“No one on the board or committee wants a strike,” Chris Keyser, co-chairman of the guild’s negotiating committee, said in an interview. “Unfortunately, the only way to be treated reasonably is to bring to bear the power of labor.”

Link to the rest at Los Angeles Times and thanks to Erica for the tip.

26 thoughts on “Golden Age of TV is not so golden for writers: Why the Writers Guild of America is moving closer to a strike”

  1. I’ve pretty much mostly been watching Japanese and Korean dramas at various sites and Scandinavian/Belgian foreign crime shows on Netflix this past year. I think maybe I’m not gonna be much affected by this.

    I can’t remember when I last bought a DVD. :::thinking, thinking::::

    I last went to the movie theater in 2008.

    And I figure an industry that can pay ridiculous figures to actors and directors and producers should be able to find some more cash for writers. I hope they win.

  2. “No one on the board or committee wants a strike,” Chris Keyser, co-chairman of the guild’s negotiating committee, said in an interview. “Unfortunately, the only way to be treated reasonably is to bring to bear the power of labor.”

    Considering some of the talent seen in the indies and on youtube, they may not have as much ‘power of labor’ as they like to think …

  3. A lot of shows are filmed/produced in Canada.
    Would those be affected?

    Also, a couple of upcoming genre shows and pilots have been filming early this year (Black Lightning, Inhumans, Runaways, Cloak & Dagger…). Their has also been a lot of chatter about the next season of several CW shows so it sounds like the studios have heen stockpiling scripts.

    The last strike killed a couple of shows that were already marginal so I’m thinking a new one might hurt actors more than the studios. If they strike, this one will go long…

  4. As I recall, the last strike brought on a new wave of reality shows that I ignored, and ushered in the neverending stream of Kardashians**. Back then the strike just meant tuning out for me.

    But now here’s Netflix, Prime, Hulu, Crunchy Roll and more, so this time I might not notice a strike at all. Mirtika’s post reminds me that a few years ago my father was trying to get me to watch Iris, a Korean spy drama that I didn’t have time to watch on Hulu during my no-TV phase. It’s funny because Hollywood has been tuning out American audiences to chase China’s dollars, but now customers are in a position to ignore Hollywood in favor of shows and movies that appeal to us. I’m not sure this strike will work out the way the writers want.

    Shorter seasons are the new norm, … [which] has put writers in a financial crunch since many have exclusivity clauses that prevent them from working on multiple shows per season.

    Sounds legit; I hope they do find a way to end that. Or perhaps the non-compete clause could push more screenwriters into the Netflix camp.

    Studios are equally dug in as more customers cut the cable cord in favor of streaming options. They’re also grappling with a dramatic fall-off in once-lucrative DVD sales and a flattening of attendance at the multiplex.

    I don’t suppose they’d consider making movies we want to see?

    **They’re like Bebe’s Kids: They don’t die, they multiply.

      • Follow-up from 2016:

        1400 different shows aired in 2015, 412 original scripted.
        Eyeball hours are fixed. So more shows = more choices other than *their* shows.

        They too face a tsunami of content eroding their “sales”.
        They too are squeezing costs out of their supply chain.
        Only difference is their writers aren’t lapdogs or hostages.

        Cue up the-irrascible-Harlan-Ellison.

        • Don’t forget all the old shows, too. If everyone was to stop making new TV shows and I had to make do with the ones that are currently on Netflix, I’d notice in… about ten years.

          Though I’d be pee-d off at missing the new season of Archer.

          • The backlist is huge in video. 🙂
            And unlike print, foreign content is significant, even if it’s just Canada, UK, Mexico, and Korea.

      • “Tsunami of crap” rears its head …

        Really I’d like to see the screenwriters “go indie,” but I don’t know to what extent that’s feasible in their medium. On Crunchy Roll I binge watched an anime series, RWBY (pronounce it “Ruby”), that was created by Monty Oum and 14 other people who used Poser to animate the series.

        The first two seasons looked like they started learning how to draw in Poser. By the third season they look like they’ve advanced a level, and the fourth season looks like they’ve mastered it. The team did the voices, wrote the scripts, and drafted family — Oum’s brother took over the voice of one character when Oum died in the third season. The series is a lot of fun.

        From what I could tell Oum’s company is doing its own thing and I’ve been hoping Netflix/Prime etc. would usher in more independents.

    • IRIS, with the incredibly handsome and gifted rapper TOP. Yeah, baby. More TOP!! (Well, more TOP later, when he’s done with his 2 years of military service. What a hunk.)

      Did you watch SIGNAL or GOBLIN? Wow, Korea does some good stuff. And Netflix seems to have just added TRAIN TO BUSAN (Korean zombie flick with the handsome dude from GOBLIN).

      We hardly talk TV shows anymore in family get-togethers, because we’re all watching different things either on streaming, Netflix, Amazon, cable, etc. We simply go where we want, without being limited to what they wanna broadcast.

      I also notice that my friends and I prefer having a season all at once–to binge-watch if we love it and to not forget what happened during those ridiculous weeks-long breaks they do on network TV.

      This is why I visit Netflix and Amazon more: full seasons in one go. And with a lot of Asian dramas, they are only 9 to 20 episodes and DONE, over, story arc usually complete. So, I ‘m not dragging for years finding out what the hell happens. Hate that.

      • *Carefully notes the shows you listed*

        *Looks them up*

        Day is made 🙂

        This should keep me busy for another couple of months — I binge watch serially; pretty much just one show a day. My dad didn’t mention the hotness of the Iris actor for some reason; I think I’ll put that show first in the queue 🙂

        Have you seen “The Tower”? It’s a thriller movie about a group of people who have to make a hair-raising escape from skyscraper when some helicopters accidentally crash into it during a Christmas celebration. The director said he was inspired by The Towering Inferno which I’ve never seen; but The Tower is a great addition to any “movie night” queue you might have.

  5. I remember the last writers’ strike. I was actually happy about it at the time because the head writer of a show I watched went on strike, and the scab brought in reunited my favorite TV couple ever. 😀

    That being said, I’m on the the side of the writers in this one. The directors and producers and actors have certainly been taken care of – I’m not sure why the writers, the creators of all the content taking place, perpetually get screwed when it comes to money in Hollywood.

    None of the other jobs would exist without the writer. TV about fell apart during the last strike. Because without writers THERE IS NO SHOW.

    It may seem unfair that they make so much, but the people above them are making even more. And given how much the industry has changed and that the studios made a $51 billion profit last year, there’s money in there to pay the writers more and contribute to their healthcare.

    I will freely admit that there’s a slight possibility I may be joining the WGA in the not-too-distant future, so that obviously colors my opinions.

    As for flattening movie sales – for me personally, it’s not that there’s nothing I want to see. It’s that I’m not willing to sit in a theater where the people two rows back are loudly talking about what’s happening and the baby in the corner cries throughout the entire movie because her parents refuse to take her out and the toddler runs up and down the stairs singing while the person behind me kicks my chair throughout the entire movie (it doesn’t seem to matter where I sit – I simply can’t go to a movie without having my chair literally kicked the entire two hours I’m there and it makes me crazy). I want that in-home system where you pay a monthly fee and then for each new release you want to watch. I’d pay that money in a heartbeat to be able to watch a movie in peace and quiet without having my seat assaulted.

    • “I’m not sure why the writers, the creators of all the content taking place, perpetually get screwed when it comes to money in Hollywood.”

      Bums on seats.

      Tons of people go to see a movie because of the actor’s name on the poster. Lots of people got to see a movie because of the director’s name.

      Very few people got to see a movie because of the writer’s name.

      It’s only recently, as scripts have become increasingly dire, that people are starting to wonder whether they need a competent writer to make anyone go to see the movie at all.

      • On the movie side, with so many derivative blockbusters, producers and directors and *video editors* are more critical to the shaping of a movie.

        Look to the story about the making of Rogue one where they filmed enough material for maybe three movies and then spliced together different versions and iterated until they found something that worked for the test audiences and Kathleen Kennedy, the big boss.

        Consider how many of the big releases last year were shot off a writer’s original finished script.

        • Right, and I know there are plenty of producers with reality shows that are “scripting” them without officially using writers. And that movies are often made either without a finished script or vague storyboarding. But dramatic television shouldn’t be made in the same way. I mean, Shonda Rhimes is not winging it.

          And having a tiny bit of inside information here (I have a friend with a production company) – you’re right. They’re going to be better prepared this time. Studios are expecting the strike and as a result are buying up scripts as quickly as they can. Non-stop all day meetings type of thing.

          I just think writers should get compensated fairly, especially in line with what other Hollywood guilds have done for their members.

    • Writers are important. Very important.
      they should be paid.

      They’re not indispensable. Not for TV or for movies. Not today.

      Video is a collaborative medium and TV these days even more so. Staff writing is not comparable to other writing assignments.

      TV fell apart during the last strike because the studios and producers weren’t prepared. This time (as I pointed out above) they may be prepared for a siege. The business has changed a lot since the last strike. Aside of the declining ads the creative process has changed, giving producers and showrunners a bigger role. These days entire seasons are mapped out first and then individual episodes are filled out and tweaked later, often based on actor availability.

      I wouldn’t be so sure that, at least on the TV side, there really is enough money to satisfy the writers. They might get some of what they ask for but not the way they want it. They might get freedom from exclusivity but no net added money.

  6. pdf of pay rates:

    If I’m reading it right, week-to-week compensation of a TV writer is $5800/week right now. That’s minimum–with a popular show, surely they negotiate for more. Other compensations exist, such as residual payments. I’m not suggesting they don’t “deserve a fair share.” I’m suggesting that, for writers, they aren’t doing too badly and, for Americans, they are doing much better than average. The median income in the world is about $10000/year per household. So, you know…first world problems. California problems.

    • Third world salary doesn’t apply, as they don’t live in Angola or Haiti or Cambodia. They live in the US (and a lot of them in one of the most expensive cities to live in in the US), and the income required to live a middle to upper class life here is not 10K or twice or three times that. If a production is expected to bring in moolah and the other creatives (director, stars) get big bucks, then writers should get big bucks (not saying they should get what a big draw name gets, but still.)

      This is privileged, elite Hollywood. I figure writers see around them those profiting from the system and hollywood accounting and they have a right to request a bigger share.

      First world problems are still problems for first worlders. I would not be happy if someone decided I should only get paid 10K cuz Zimbabwe.

  7. The problem isn’t the rate of pay for the time they are working, it’s the exclusivity requirements that prevent them from working the rest of the time

    Authors should pay attention to this, and watch their contracts with the publishers. I’ve seen KRR and others post a lot of stories about contracts that prohibit an author from working on other projects until the publisher lets them.

    If the stupid “you cannot work on anything else during this ‘season'” clause was missing from their contracts, this would be a non-issue.

    • Agreed.
      But keep in mind these TV people are writers, not authors. They are contributors to a product but not its creators.
      They have more in common with copy writers and newspaper staff than novelists.

      In many (most?) cases they are full time salaried employees, not freelancers.

      Their problem is that working on short season projects makes them seasonal workers. Exclusivity contracts are a really bad deal unless the pay is enough to support them year round.

      That is where they need to start.

  8. This is what worries me about this move:

    “Viewership for long form video content, such as movies and television on a TV screen has declined by 13% globally over the past year, and by 11% in the United States. Similarly, the report found sports viewership on TV screens declined by 10% globally and nine percent in the United States. Television was the only product category to see uniform, double-digit usage declines across different types of media worldwide among viewers of nearly all ages. It is rapidly being replaced as consumers turn to a combination of laptops, desktops, tablets and smartphones to view video content.

    “Nearly all age brackets reported double-digit declines in TV viewing globally, with 14- to 17-year-olds abandoning the TV screen at the rate of 33% for movies and television shows and 26% for sporting events. This decline continues for 18- to 34-year-olds at 14% for movies and television shows and 12% for sporting events, and for 35- to 54-year-olds, at 11 and nine percent, respectively. It does, however, flatten among the 55 and older crowd, at six percent and one percent respectively.”

    The TV networks and studios get the bulk of their revenues from four streams:

    1- first run broadcast via ads. This is dependent on ratings.
    2- rerun streaming. Licensing terms are dependent on first run ratings.
    3- syndication and foreign licensing. Terms are dependent on first run ratings.
    4- DVD set sales.

    Once upon a time the broadcast ad revenue paid the bills and syndication was icing. Then DVD sets added to the mix more profit. Each revenue stream was an addition. That is what the 2007 strike was mostly about.

    The whole industry was defined by ratings. Higher ratings meant more viewers and more money. That is no longer always the case.

    Today, things are different; streaming brings in good money on a predictable basis but the terms depend on the first run ratings and show popularity. And streaming is undercutting those first run ratings. Negotiating higher fees is getting harder because a lot of the value of a show in the streaming realm is the buzz it brings. Lower buzz, lower terms.

    Part of the problem is the very ratings system: it rates a streaming viewer as a fraction of the first-run broadcast viewer presumably because, technically, streaming views are reruns. So, when tallying total viewers Nielsen discounts the value of next day viewers and with a lot of people preferring to watch shows on *their* schedule instead of the network’s the ratings will show a drop and ad revenue will decline, licensing becomes harder, and total revenue will be at most flat even if viewership goes up.

    The top streaming services are all building their own catalog of first run content as a hedge against higher licensing terms from the TV studios.

    When the studios say money is tight, they aren’t lying.

    There is still lots and lots of money in even low rating shows but it probably isn’t growing. Distributing the revenues is thus a zero-sum game. For staff writers to get higher pay, somebody is going to have to get less. It might be the producers and execs, the people deciding who gets hired or fired; it might be the studio investing in the show, the people who decide if the return on investment justifies renewing the show.

    Two examples from the last year:

    The fifth highest rating scripted show for 2016 was GREY’S ANATOMY on ABC with a rating in the 3.6 range or so.

    Over at CBS, LIMITLESS ended up with a 2.2 rating and SUPERGIRL with a 2 rating. Both got cancelled. SUPERGIRL made sense because it was expensive to make. Lots of CGI, Callista Flockhart. Filmed in LA. LIMITLESS had no great SFX, filmed outside LA, no terribly expensive regulars.

    Nobody wanted to pick up LIMITLESS. Not Netflix. Not Hulu. Nobody on cable. Not a bad show. But there’s 400 other shows out there.

    SUPERGIRL is doubly interesting: originally CBS picked up the show because they wanted a family friendly show that would appeal to younger viewers. They got that. Only it didn’t do quite as well with the older viewers that are CBS core viewers. Now, CBS owns a chunk of CW and another reason they ran the show on CBS was that CW already ran for DC comics shows and they were afraid of becoming the “DC Network”.

    Fast forward one year: the SUPERGIRL producers moved the show from LA to Vancouver, phased Flockhart out (regretfully), and presumably reduced other costs. (No telling how many, if any of the staff writers were retained.) CGI use is, if anything, higher this year. By Nielsen numbers, the show’s ratings are running about half of CBS numbers. No shock: CW has less affiliate stations than CBS and they rely more on streaming vuewership. (Which is deprecated in the ratings.) The kicker, though: CW renewed it early. They are reportedly very happy with their financials.

    One reason: CW has less affiliates and relies more on *their* streaming app. In other words, whatever ad revenue they get from streaming is all theirs. No sharing with HULU, no sharing with local affiliates. They also negotiated a better deal with Netflix giving Netflix full show seasons the day after the finale runs.

    And the fear of becoming a DC COMICS network? Well, after seeing the money brought in by (alleged) failures like Batman v Superman and Suicide Squad, that sounds like a good thing. They not only renewed all the DC shows, they are looking at adding another two (Black Lightning and some kind of Constantine project). Plus they added the Archie comics-derived soap, RIVERDALE, that is doing surprisingly well.

    Moving a marginal show from LA to Canada not only saved it but also made it profitable. Moving it from CBS to CW meant lower ratings but a higher net. All at a time money is tight for the studios.

    Things are changing.
    The way shows are made is changing.
    The way they make money is changing.
    Streaming is disrupting everything.

    Writers should be paid but if they are the last to show up at the feeding trough and the (sadly) easiest to replace…

    I’m not sure striking right *now*, at a time the industry is transitioning, is the safest thing to do.

    The timing seems ackward.

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