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Q+A: What the Writers Guild Strike Tells Us About the State of the Entertainment Industry

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More than 11,000 television and film writers stopped working last week after failing to reach a new contract agreement with the studios that churn out movies, cable and streaming shows. The Writers Guild of America is negotiating for compensation that recognizes new dynamics in streaming and television production — such as shorter seasons, smaller writers’ rooms and fewer opportunities for writers to continue their work through a show’s production — that are limiting writers’ ability to earn a steady income and gain skills to advance in the industry.

Looming over the talks is the growing presence of artificial intelligence programs that are rapidly becoming adept at writing. According to industry veteran Andrew Susskind, an associate teaching professor in the Antoinette Westphal College of Media Arts & Design, who was recently interviewed about the strike on KYW Newsradio’s “In Depth” podcast, the likelihood that the technology could be used to reduce their participation in the production process, and opportunities to work, has raised the stakes of the labor negotiations — and could have a ripple effect felt around the industry by audiences in the coming months.

Susskind recently shared his observations about the strike and how this one is very different from similar work stoppages over the last few decades.

What are the circumstances that led to the Writers Guild’s decision to strike?

As with all strikes, money is an important part, but there are even bigger issues involved. Yes, the writers want significant increases in minimum compensations and residuals, especially for work done for streaming services. They also want to significantly extend the span of time writers are guaranteed compensation when they work on streaming series. More importantly, the writers see the current financial structure and growing dominance of streaming production — and the looming threat of artificial intelligence — as existential threats to their ability to maintain sustainable careers.

How is the growing promise of artificial intelligence programs complicating the issue?

The primary complication is that the Alliance of Motion Picture and Television Producers sees the “promise” of AI, while the writers see it as a threat. The writers have demanded the producers agree not to use AI in the creation of literary material — essentially not to use AI for script writing.

The producers have refused to even discuss AI, other than to suggest that the two sides meet once a year to discuss where AI is as a technology. The producers’ refusal to engage in substantive discussions about AI has only confirmed the writers’ suspicions that when AI technology develops to the point when it can produce acceptable scripts, the producers will use it to do so, thus eliminating countless — and critical — job opportunities for writers.

How long is the strike likely to last?

I don’t see how this strike does not last a long time. The recent arms race among all the major media companies to get into the streaming business has caused them to take on huge amounts of debt. And since Wall Street has changed its emphasis from growth to profitability, the media companies are under immense pressure to hold down costs.

At the same time, the writers believe that with the inevitable likelihood of increased media consolidation and the looming threat of AI, this is their last, best chance to negotiate a restructuring of the underlying economics of the industry before screenwriting becomes just another gig economy job.

In short, while the producers may claim this is an existential moment, for the writers, it truly is.

How much pressure are Streaming companies under to end the strike?

For Netflix and Disney — particularly if Disney plans to buy the remaining one-third of Hulu that it doesn’t already own — there will be little to no short-term pressure to end the strike. They both have immense content catalogues to satisfy viewers for months, if need be.

For Apple and Amazon, the content business is currently a miniscule part of their business, so they won’t feel pressure at all.

The broadcast and cable networks are most vulnerable to a long-term halt in scripted production, because their audiences are loyal series viewers who will be frustrated by a lack of new episodes, and frustrated cable viewers are likely to cancel subscriptions.

When are we likely to notice that new content is drying up?

Late night shows have already shut down. Soap operas may follow soon. A strike lasting more than 6-8 weeks would severely impact the ability for the broadcast networks to have new episodes and shows ready for the traditional post-Labor Day new season launch.

For viewers of reality programming, the strike should have little to no impact, since those producers are generally not affiliated with any of the guilds.

Moviegoers probably won’t notice a lag for at least six months.

What does this all mean for the future of the industry?

It depends. A medium-length strike will certainly hasten the demise of network and cable “legacy/linear” viewership, and a long strike will force frustrated viewers to seek entertainment elsewhere.

On the other hand, there’s the opportunity for the two sides to negotiate a restructuring of the financial underpinnings of the filmed entertainment industry that could guarantee sustainable growth and profitability well into the future. It all depends on how Hollywood balances its two most constant elements: fear and greed.

Reporters interested in speaking with Susskind should contact Britt Faulstick, executive director of News & Media Relations, or 215.895.2617.

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