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Thu, Mar

TV Writers Flex Their Union Power

LOS ANGELES

WRITER’S STRIKE - Television has been experiencing a boom in the United States, the likes of which has never been seen before. Just before the COVID-19 pandemic hit, there were 532 scripted TV shows that were broadcast or streamed the year before—an all-time high. In 2022, there were 599. In fact, according to FX Network Research, since 2012 there has been a steady increase in the number of scripted shows, except for a small dip due to the lockdown-related production halt in 2020.

These new heights in television production can be attributed largely to streaming services such as Netflix—a company that has been offering up tantalizing on-screen fiction for the past decade since “House of Cards” first debuted as an exclusively streaming show on the platform. But the primacy of streaming is also the reason why TV writers are now threatening to go on strike. For years, streaming services have slashed residual payments, which writers rely on, prompting the Writers Guild of America (WGA) to vote to strike.

The turnout for the WGA vote strike, which took place on April 17, broke records, with nearly 80 percent of the union’s members casting ballots. Of that number, nearly 98 percent voted to strike. These numbers are significantly higher than in 2007, the last time WGA members voted to strike and actually carried out their threat (a 2017 strike was narrowly averted). The union, which represents more than 11,000 writers, has the potential to bring the TV industry to a screeching halt if negotiations with media companies, represented by the Alliance of Motion Picture and Television Producers (AMPTP), break down by May 1, the last day of WGA’s current contract.

Three major unions dominate Hollywood’s television industry, representing writers, directors, and actors: the WGA, the Directors Guild of America (DGA), and the Screen Actors Guild - American Federation of Television and Radio Artists (SAG-AFTRA), respectively. Both DGA and SAG-AFTRA will also start negotiations shortly with the AMPTP ahead of their contracts ending on June 30. There is potential for multiple overlapping strikes in the coming months, leaving Hollywood’s television industry on edge, even as most of the nation enjoys the fruits of its work, blissfully unaware of the tensions brewing between creators and corporate producers.

The stakes are high. Already Netflix is boasting that it can rely on foreign labor to weather a potential WGA strike. The company’s co-CEO Ted Sarandos said a day after the strike authorization vote that if writers went on strike, “we have a large base of upcoming shows and films from around the world,” adding, “We could probably serve our members better than most.” Networks are also stockpiling scriptsin preparation for a potential writers’ strike.

TV producers hold massive financial power in an industry whose cultural influence sweeps across the world. While writers, directors, and actors are the ones whose creativity powers the direction of new, innovative content, their bosses—executives at Netflix, Hulu, HBO Max, and Disney—have driven down the costs of labor to maximize profits.

Residuals, which are extra payments made to creative workers each time their shows re-air, used to provide stable incomes for TV workers in between jobs. Streaming services negotiated minuscule residuals years ago when they were minor players within the TV landscape. Now, although they dominate the scene, streaming producers are continuing to pay their workers insultingly low residuals. Worse, many creators are finding that platforms will disappear their projects altogether in order to get a tax write-off and avoid having to pay them.

TV producers are also cutting costs by canceling shows abruptly—a move that could disproportionately impact diversity on-screen. Television is one of the world’s most powerful narrative-setting industries, influencing culture in ways that can determine day-to-day policies. According to GLAAD, “For many Americans, it was television shows that gave them their first images of same-sex couples, and a chance to recognize the commonalities with their own lives.” This in turn helped lay the foundation for the legalization of same-sex marriage within years.

Television has the potential to do the same for racial justice issues. According to the latest Hollywood Diversity Report, “people of color have made tremendous advances among broadcast, cable, and digital leads in recent years,” and “Black and multiracial persons exceeded proportionate representation among leads in 2020-21 for cable and digital scripted shows.” Still, the report concludes that there is not enough parity overall.

Now, in search of profits, TV producers are cutting costs by canceling already green-lit projects. “[T]he streaming explosion has lost steam,” declared MarketWatch. TV networks and streaming platforms ordered nearly a quarter fewer shows in the second half of last year compared to the year before. John Landgraf, chairman of FX Networks, who is credited with coining the term “Peak TV,” worriesthat cost-cutting will impact the representation of racially diverse communities.

It appears as though, in addition to using foreign-sourced projects and stockpiling scripts as leverage, TV’s corporate executives plan to approach union negotiations by touting the notion that television output is peaking and therefore costs such as baseline pay and residuals cannot be increased. 

Yet, media companies have enough money to buy one another, spending billions on mergers and acquisitions. A year ago, Amazon acquired MGM Studios for $8.5 billion; and Warner Brothers, which owned HBO Max, merged with Discovery to the tune of $43 billion. Earlier this year, Showtime announced a merger with Paramount+. Predictably, these companies are announcing cuts to their workforce to pay for such consolidation.

But workers still have leverage. David Slack, a WGA union member and a writer and consulting producer on “Magnum P.I.,” told the Washington Post, “The power to withhold our labor is the only tool we have to get the studios to pay us what’s fair.” He added, “Our products are the foundation for all the billions of dollars of revenue that these entertainment companies generate, and we need to be compensated for that.” Los Angeles Times columnist Mary McNamara distilled the dynamic succinctly: “If studios and platforms want to be in the original scripted content business, they need to make that business work for the people writing those scripts. It’s that simple.”

The last time TV writers went on strike, it lasted a whopping 100 days and cost the economy of Los Angeles more than $2 billion. If writers go on a prolonged strike, there will be a ripple effect, putting actors and directors out of work as well. There can be no scripted television if no one is writing the scripts. 

(Sonali Kolhatkar is an award-winning multimedia journalist. She is the founder, host, and executive producer of “Rising Up With Sonali,” a weekly television and radio show that airs on Free Speech TV and Pacifica stations. Her forthcoming book is Rising Up: The Power of Narrative in Pursuing Racial Justice (City Lights Books, 2023). She is a writing fellow for the Economy for All project at the Independent Media Institute and the racial justice and civil liberties editor at Yes! Magazine. She serves as the co-director of the nonprofit solidarity organization the Afghan Women’s Mission and is a co-author of Bleeding Afghanistan. She also sits on the board of directors of Justice Action Center, an immigrant rights organization. This article was produced by Economy for All, a project of the Independent Media Institute.)