Editorials, Opinion

Here’s why there’s nothing new on TV

If you watched the Tony Awards Sunday night and thought the ceremony was a teensy bit less polished than usual, it’s because the whole thing was unscripted. As a show of support for (and part of an agreement to not be picketed by) the Writers Guild of America, the Tonys did not use any scripted material for its night of pageantry, music and recognition. 

The Writers Guild of America has been on strike since May 2 (roughly 40 days) as Hollywood writers petition for higher base pay, higher residuals and better protections as the film landscape rapidly changes. In the midst of all this, the Directors Guild of America reached a tentative deal with the Alliance of Motion Picture and Television Producers; and the Screen Actors Guild and American Federation of Television and Radio Artists overwhelming voted to authorize a strike should SAG’s negotiations with the AMPTP go sour before the end of June. 

In a May interview with NPR, New York Times media writer John Koblin explained how streaming has left many talented and successful writers on the brink of poverty: “If you think back to the days of traditional television … if you were a writer on an episode of [a hit] show and it goes into syndication, which is essentially a rerun … you get a check. And if that show got sold overseas, you’d get a check. If that show had a DVD sale, you’d get a check. But if you think of the streaming services that we watch … There is no syndication, because if I have a show that went on Netflix in 2015, eight years later, it’s still on Netflix. There are no international deals because Netflix is a global streaming service. So as a result, all these distribution arms have been cut off and [have] been replaced with a fixed residual or a sort of royalty. … And those checks that they used to get 15, 20, 30 years ago [were] sort of the lifeblood of the middle-class writer.”  

The WGA has asked for an increased base rate as well as slightly higher residuals (including for foreign streams) based on the total number of subscribers. As Koblin mentioned in his NPR interview, studios are throwing hundreds of millions of dollars into   special effects and big-name actors while refusing to up the pay for the people who create the shows and movies in the first place.  

Another  main contention is over shrinking mini-/developmental writers rooms. In an interview with Popsugar, TV writer Isaac Gómez (Netflix’s “Narcos: Mexico” and Apple TV+’s “The Last Thing He Told Me”) said, pre-streaming, a traditional writers room would last “30 to 40 weeks and what we’re seeing right now are these mini rooms that can be as short as six weeks and as long as 20 weeks. Sometimes your shows aren’t even guaranteed to be aired … It has sort of perpetuated this freelance gig economy.” 

Koblin also addressed these mini-/developmental rooms. Writers work on a script for roughly 10 weeks, he said, then they are let go while the network/streaming service decides if they even want to develop that script into a show. That forces writers to go onto the next writers room, and by the time the studio greenlights the script for production, the original writers have moved on. The constant bouncing from project to project just to stay afloat is what has turned the script-writing industry into a “gig economy.”  

To combat this, WGA has asked that writers rooms staff a minimum number of writers for a minimum number of weeks. The AMPTP says establishing a minimum would force companies to hire more writers than they need for longer than they need. 

On the issue of artificial intelligence, AMPTP and WGA seem to be on different pages. More than anything, WGA wants clear language that says AI won’t replace writers. The AMPTP said publicly that it considers a writer to be a person — something the WGA says was never articulated in negotiations. There seems to be extra contention over whether writers themselves should be allowed to use AI to help generate material. 

Considering the wide gap between what writers want and what studios are currently willing to give, it looks like we’ll be watching re-runs and reality TV for quite a while.