Writers Guild Is on Strike, With Major Financial Losses Looming as Low-Paid Writers Demand a Decent Living and AI Protections

Writers Guild of America members walk in front of Sony Pictures (Jay L. Clendenin / Los Angeles Times via AOL) Photo Source: Jay L. Clendenin / Los Angeles Times via AOL

Have you ever imagined a life writing for television shows such as Elementary, Law and Order, or Saturday Night Live? Though you may believe the talented writers who bring these shows to life for many millions of hooked viewers enjoy a Hollywood lifestyle, you’d be very wrong. Instead, most writers belonging to the Writers Guild are speaking publicly about working for such low wages they cannot afford to pay their most basic bills.

For three years, the Writers Guild of America (WGA) had been negotiating a proposed new contract with the Alliance of Motion Picture and Television Producers (AMPTP). Now, those discussions are on hold, and the approximately 20,000 WGA members are on strike.

The WGA released a statement about the strike, saying, "The companies' behavior has created a gig economy inside a union workforce, and their immovable stance in this negotiation has betrayed a commitment to further devaluing the profession of writing ... They have closed the door on their labor force and opened the door to writing as an entirely freelance profession. No such deal could ever be contemplated by this membership.”

The AMPTP disagreed, saying in a statement that its offer was, ”a comprehensive package proposal to the Guild (April 30) which included generous increases in compensation for writers as well as improvements in streaming residuals. The AMPTP also indicated to the WGA that it is prepared to improve that offer, but was unwilling to do so because of the magnitude of other proposals still on the table that the Guild continues to insist upon."

The last time the Writers Guild went on strike, in 2007, seems almost quaint when compared to this year’s event. Back then, writers were asking for better compensation anytime their work was used in DVDs and internet downloads, which were mainly on iTunes at the time.

Today, the Guild is facing a dramatically different writing reality. The top shows watched today are charted by streaming studios such as Netflix, Amazon, Hulu, Apple, etc. Now, unlike the prior hit shows that ran on traditional television stations for at least 20 - 26 episodes per year, streaming shows might last only 8 to 10 episodes.

Despite the artistic renaissance on streaming shows, due to high-level acting, production and writing, writers are now just like any gig workers. As the Alliance of Motion Picture and Television Producers sees it, writers are having an "existential crisis."

Sure, they do have the perk of being in a union, but writers nowadays work for very little compensation and are always worried about where their next job will come from when their current short-lived series is done. It’s simple mathematics: working less means earning less, no matter how you slice it.

The Writers Guild is focused on compensation during this strike, but also on the impending tech future facing them. The WGA expects to be impacted by the oncoming content revolution artificial intelligence will bring to the industry. It’s now not a question of “if” a streaming giant will use AI to write a script, but when. Part of the demands for the writers is that whenever streaming services show their work, they should be paid.

The WGA has requested the implementation of safeguards to prevent studios from using AI to generate new scripts, using writers' previous work, or asking writers to edit and rewrite scripts created by AI.

WGA members rely upon residuals, which are paid to them after a TV show's debut, such as when it first airs, or streams in other places. Residuals are much lower for streaming shows than for traditional broadcast shows, because on broadcast shows big money comes in when those programs are aired as reruns or in syndication or on cable channels. The rules for streaming are very different, because most streaming studios demand exclusivity, meaning there is a much smaller distribution of their shows on other channels.

An NPR interview with numerous successful writers, such as writer Brittani Nichols, who writes for the ABC hit show “Abbot Elementary,” shares some specific low residuals in the industry today. As Nichols explained in the interview, not so long ago she could easily survive on her residuals, but now, that is not the case.

“You're getting checks for $3, $7, $10,” said Nichols in the NPR interview. “It's not enough to put together any sort of consistent lifestyle. It can really be a real shock 'cause, you know, we get our residuals in these green envelopes. You get a green envelope; you're like, all right, here we go. Hopefully something good's in here. And then, sometimes, you just get a stack of checks for seven cents.”

Financial losses in LA and beyond are expected. California Governor Gavin Newsom said the strike will have "profound consequences, direct and indirect. We're very concerned about what's going on because both sides are dug in and the stakes are high.”

Fifteen years ago during the 100-day WGA strike, California lost about $2.1 billion due to canceled production, out-of-work writers and the crews, actors and producers who were impacted.

Viewers can expect to still see some new series and films on streaming studios because those companies stockpiled scripts. Supposedly, reality TV will not be impacted. What viewers will see is the impact the strike has upon late-night television shows and even Saturday Night Live, which just announced they are being paused indefinitely.

Apparently, even in Hollywood, freshly written, timely jokes cannot be stockpiled.

Diane Lilli
Diane Lilli
Diane Lilli is an award winning Journalist, Editor and Author for over 18 years for New Jersey news outlets (print and online) including launching the first daily digital newspaper in 2005, Jersey Tomato Press. She has been published in numerous newspapers; journals; magazines and literary publications nationally and is the winner of the Shirley Chisholm Journalism Award.
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