An Ultimate Showdown Between the WGA and the AMPTP
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Family Guy’s writers have stopped working. Big Mouth’s final season has halted mid-production. Stranger Things has paused filming. The common thread between these three shows and countless others is that they have been affected by a nationwide writers strike.
The contract between the Writers Guild of America (WGA) and the Alliance of Motion Picture and Television Producers (AMPTP) ended on May 1. Protests began the next day. There are several issues that the writers are striking for, the most prevalent of which are demands for higher pay, a more stable pay structure, fairer deals and contracts, and clear guidelines around the usage of AI. The contract in question had been set into motion in 2017, and since then, the AMPTP and WGA had not engaged in negotiations other than those surrounding the extension of the contract’s viability—until now.
This is not a novel situation. The WGA has gone on strike many times before, most recently from November 2007 to February 2008. This strike caught television studios off guard; when these companies ran out of episodes stored in their backlogs, they refocused their resources on reality TV, since it doesn’t necessarily require a script. It’s unclear how the current strike will alter the landscape of TV for years to come, but it is reasonable to assume that it could lead to another uptick in reality shows. This strike could also spell the end of late night television, an institution that, unlike reality television, relies on writers constantly working.
The suspension of late night television has been one of the most immediate impacts of the writers strike. These shows have absolutely nothing to run on without teams of writers creating jokes. One of these writers is Jay Katsir, a head writing and supervising producer for The Late Show with Stephen Colbert (2015- ). “During normal times, my job is to help the show’s writers pitch and organize their ideas, write and edit scripts for Stephen Colbert to perform, and find third clauses for three-part sentences that end in a joke,” Katsir explained in an interview with The Spectator. However, Katsir now says, “[his] main occupation is walking in a circle holding a stick.” Katsir and his team of writers, along with writers across the country, have been protesting the AMPTP. While on strike, members of the WGA are prohibited from writing and rewriting. “Right now, the central issues have to do with the fact that people get paid less when writing television and movies for streaming than they do when writing for a traditional TV network or theatrical release. Those issues will eventually affect everyone, as all media moves to a model where there’s no difference between a TV network, an app, a web page, and a Wi-Fi-enabled microwave,” Katsir said. Though this future seems far off, with the introduction of smart fridges, and, more recently, smart toasters, the platforms on which television is streamed could change radically. If there aren’t fair policies on what a writer earns for their work across these platforms, there’s the potential for these writers to earn even less money in proportion to their works’ popularity.
According to a WGA report published just over two months ago, the median weekly writer-producer wage has decreased 23 percent over the last decade. This is due to a multitude of factors. For starters, production value has risen, while standard base pay has stagnated. While the evolution of CGI and practical effects has continued, the money a writer makes for the same
movie is only a fraction of funds spent on said special effects; data recorded in the past two years reports that the standard Marvel superhero movie spends between $100 and $200 million on CGI, while a writer for that movie receives just $5,000. Additionally, when a show is rerun on cable television, the writers earn much more than if that show were simply streamed on, for example, Hulu. This connects to a second major issue: in the streaming age, shorter is better. Business Insider recently reported that Netflix has been favoring seasons of 10 episodes or less; previously the service had faced criticism for shows that could be classified as movies—like The Crown—due to their extensive lengths. Because of this, the long term stability afforded to writers of long-running shows has been lost. Essentially, screenwriting is no longer a reliable source of income. On top of this, the rise of AI has also led to a great deal of uncertainty for writers. With services such as ChatGPT and Jasper quickly learning to recognize patterns in human interactions, a world where shows could one day be written by AI doesn’t seem as far-fetched as it once did. “AI was on everyone’s minds, and it’s been surprising how quickly it’s become central in debates about how creative work will be written in the future,” Katsir explained, before declaring that ultimately he does not believe that “an algorithm can produce a sentence as thoughtful, subtle, concise, pithy, heartbreaking, succinct, well-honed, and un-repetitive as this one.” Ultimately, there’s just no substitute for authentic writing.
There are a plethora of issues plaguing writers’ rooms, and Katsir believes that this strike will help. “I was a WGA member during the 2007 strike. I think it was successful, especially because it gave us a foothold in being paid for work that was put on the Internet (studios did not want to pay writers for that at the time). This time, we are also asking to be paid fairly for use of writing on an emerging platform,” Katsir said, referring to streaming services.
Television isn’t going away, so clearly the AMPTP and the WGA will have to reach some sort of agreement sooner or later. The real question is: What will be included in that agreement? Will writers be compensated more fairly for their work? Will TV series become longer again? Will AI be restricted? The answers to these questions will set a precedent in the scriptwriting industry for years to come, but, even more importantly, they will indicate how much (or how little) Hollywood values the human touch.