When Sharyn Rothstein was hired onto her first television writing job, she had two young children. She needed stability, and the USA Network’s show Suits offered her that.
“I got to work for most of the year: I knew what my income was going to be and I knew what my job was going to be,” she told me. But in the eight years since that first job, the industry has changed.
“The amount of time we have to write a show has shrunk, and the amount of writers who they will hire to write that show has shrunk. So writers end up only working six, ten, or maybe twelve weeks in a year. You can’t piece together a sustainable living doing that.”
Rothstein explained the changes to me yesterday as we stood at the corner of Fifth Ave and Thirty-Seventh Street in Manhattan, a few feet away from the Writers Guild of America (WGA) East’s picket line. The location of the New York picket is illustrative of the issue. They were picketing Peacock NewFront — a name that is compelling evidence of the lackluster results you get when executives try to put words together. As I overheard one picketer say to another, “What even is this place?” Hundreds of writers clogged a full city block, chanting and holding signs. Given their line of work, those signs had a variety of messages — from “Fair contract now!” to “Pay your writers or we’ll spoil Succession.”
The changes Rothstein was speaking of are what led to the strike, which began nationwide yesterday, though the majority of picket lines are in the Los Angeles area. The WGA (West and East) called the strike just before midnight on May 1, with its leadership unanimously voting for a work stoppage after six weeks of negotiations with the Alliance of Motion Picture and Television Producers (AMPTP) over a new three-year contract that covers some 11,500 film and television writers. Announcing its decision, the union said that the bargaining table responses of the AMPTP, which consists of Amazon, Apple, Discovery-Warner, Disney, NBC Universal, Netflix, Paramount, and Sony, had “been wholly insufficient given the existential crisis writers are facing.”
A document released by the WGA shows the distance between the two sides: on several of the writers’ key issues, the studios rejected the unions’ proposal and failed to offer a counterproposal.
“When you look at the things that the studios flatly refused on altogether, they’re not money, they’re working conditions,” says Adam Conover, the creator of Adam Ruins Everything and a member of the WGA negotiating committee. He spoke to me by phone from Los Angeles, where he spent the first day picketing outside of the Netflix building and fielding press requests. At one point yesterday, he criticized the $250 million salary of Warner Bros. Discovery CEO David Zaslav during an interview on CNN, which is owned by Warner Bros. Discovery (“Because you ruin everything, you may have just ruined my career, but I don’t mind,” joked CNN anchor Sara Sidner as she ended her interview with Conover.)
Went on CNN to explain why writers are striking, ended up roasting their bosses' salary. pic.twitter.com/Si4HHDVuM8
— Adam Conover (@adamconover) May 2, 2023
“When it comes to the working conditions that studios won’t touch, a good example is that screenwriters have a huge problem with free work,” explains Conover. “Screenwriters are paid in two big chunks: one at the beginning and one at the end, which gives the producer the power to hold the last payment over them and get them to do extra drafts before they release the payment.”
The unions sought to rectify the problem by proposing that screenwriters be paid weekly. It’s a zero-cost proposal, but the studios refused to offer a counter. “It’s because they like getting the free work and they like having the power over us,” says Conover.
Another priority for the WGA is a staffing requirement for television shows. The rise of streaming, which now generates the bulk of the industry’s profits, has brought a proliferation of “mini-rooms,” primarily consisting of a showrunner aided by one or a few writers. That change has not only meant overwork for those in such rooms, but a reduction in writing work altogether. When the WGA proposed to regulate such understaffing, the AMPTP refused.
“When they refuse to even talk about that proposal — they would not bring it up in the room — it makes it clear that their intention is to eliminate writers’ rooms,” says Conover.
He noted that while the studios offered to create a minimum pay floor for comedy/variety shows (daytime and late-night television) that currently lack such a standard, they also are insisting on a day rate, meaning that rather than the thirteen-week contracts that are the current norm for such writers, they could instead be hired by the day.
“That would create incredible precarity and turn late-night writing from a career into a gig that stand-up comics could do one day a week,” says Conover.
In other words, the terms of the strike are stark: the studios want to gigify writing, eroding the stability on which the career, and the work it produces, depends as well reducing the number of jobs that exist.
Additionally, distance remains between the two sides on the matter of residuals, the money writers receive when their work gets reused. That income cushions the frequent downtime between jobs and can account for a significant proportion of a writer’s annual earnings. Writers receive far lower residuals for streaming than for broadcast television, and now that the former dominates the industry and nearly half of all writers are working for the contract’s minimum compensation level regardless of experience, the current setup leaves them unable to make a living. A WGA report finds that writer pay has declined 4 percent over the past decade, which amounts to 23 percent when adjusted for inflation.
There is also the matter of artificial intelligence (AI). The writers want to regulate its use, proposing that AI “can’t write or rewrite literary material” or be “used as source material.” The AMPTP countered by offering “annual meetings to discuss advancements in technology.”
“We thought that one would be an easy layup for them, since AI is not currently usable in any shape or form and it’s not even clear that its output is copyrightable,” says Conover. But the studios’ response suggests to the writers that the issue is of greater importance than they’d realized when they began formulating the proposals six months ago.
Says Conover, “It’s like if you ask someone, ‘Hey, would you agree that you’re not going to pull out a gun and shoot me in the stomach?’ And the person says, ‘I’m not going to agree to that.’ Suddenly you think, ‘Wait, I didn’t think you were going to do that, but now I’m worried that you are or else you’d agree to not do it.’”
Back in New York, workers from the city’s television shows were well represented on the picket line. Saturday Night Live cast members Aidy Bryant and Sarah Sherman walked alongside several of the show’s writers. (This week’s episode, which was to be hosted by former SNL cast member Pete Davidson, has now been scrapped.) The Tonight Show Starring Jimmy Fallon announcer and SNL producer Steve Higgins was on the picket line as well. As late-night shows across the networks go dark, one nonunion Fallon employee says that the staff and crew were told yesterday that NBC would stop paying them at the end of the week and end their health insurance after this month should the strike still be ongoing.
Other entertainment industry unions were present in Manhattan as well. Screen Actors Guild–American Federation of Television and Radio Artists (SAG-AFTRA), Directors Guild of America (DGA), and International Alliance of Theatrical Stage Employees (IATSE) members held signs representing their respective unions, and conversation among picketers frequently turned to whether the directors, who are set to begin their own negotiations with the AMPTP on May 10, might strike too. Their contract expires on June 30, as does SAG-AFTRA’s. The DGA’s decision to negotiate a weak deal during the last writers’ strike in 2007 has not been forgotten by WGA members, but some suspect that the directors are more willing to fight alongside them this time around.
As for the connections between the workers, all of whom are affected by the current strike as productions begin to shut down nationwide, Joey Winterbotham, a member of IATSE Local 700, the motion picture editors’ guild, told me that the reasons for solidarity are straightforward.
“The WGA’s wins are our wins,” said Winterbotham. “We all negotiate against the AMPTP, and we know as a local how they are at the bargaining table, and it’s not very good. I don’t blame the WGA or anyone else who goes on strike; I blame the corporations, the producers, and the people at the head of these systems who are refusing to pay a fair wage. It wasn’t the WGA who brought us here. It was the AMPTP.”
“I was pretty shocked when I saw the degree to which the studios do not seem to be negotiating in good faith at all,” elected WGA-East council member Josh Gondelman told me when I got him off the picket line for an interview. Gondelman, who was a writer for Last Week Tonight With John Oliver as well as a writer and producer for Desus and Mero, said that he was surprised by how little the AMPTP seemed to be bargaining over the writers’ priorities.
“We are on strike because this is an existential negotiation for writing as a profession,” said Gondelman, “and what the studios are saying is, ‘We want to give you as little as we can get away with, as infrequently as we can.’ It’s outrageous to me given how much money is now being made off of our backs. Meanwhile, even the writers who are ‘making it’ are sometimes not making it.”
“If the WGA’s proposals aren’t met, television writing as a profession probably won’t exist in the future,” What We Do in the Shadows writer Rajat Suresh told me. “But honestly, that makes total sense, because if you think about it, when people watch a show, they’re usually like, ‘I’ve gotta see this new David Zaslav show coming out,’” he said sarcastically, referring to the Warner Bros. Discovery CEO. “I can’t tell you how many people I meet who are the biggest Ted Sarandos superfans in the world. These guys are the real creative geniuses behind all your favorite shows.”
Even seasoned WGA members were taken aback by the lack of progress at the bargaining table. Melissa Salmons has been in the union since 1987 when she began writing on soap operas like Days of Our Lives and As the World Turns. She was on the WGA negotiating committee in 2007, when an impasse led to a one-hundred-day strike, and she told me that she suspects the studios’ intransigence may have something to do with the divergent interests of the AMPTP’s members. Amazon’s financial models and business concerns may not be the same as those of Warner Bros. Discovery or Netflix, but they all speak in one voice during negotiations.
When I floated that speculation to Conover, he agreed that the growing heterogeneity of the AMPTP’s members might explain some of their intransigence at the bargaining table, but noted that because of the AMPTP’s unity in the negotiating room, the WGA has no evidence of that.
It’s hard to see how the disagreement gets resolved quickly. The 2007–8 strike lasted one hundred days, and the one before that, in 1987–88, went on for five months. Members of the negotiating committee told the Hollywood Reporter that even as the union compromised on several of their proposals, the studios remained unwilling to give writers a say in their Wall Street–backed transformation of the entertainment industry in search of exponential growth. As WGA negotiating cochair David Goodman told the trade publication, “With a union sometimes in order to get what you need, you need to exercise your power. . . . That will really be the determining factor of when we make a deal with the AMPTP — the pain that we’re about to inflict on this business by withholding our work.”