Lawmakers keep a close eye on writers’ strike with no end in sight

Lawmakers are keeping a close eye on a writers’ strike in the entertainment industry that is showing no signs of reaching a resolution over the summer.

The standoff between writers in the Writers Guild of America (WGA) and studio chiefs represented by the Alliance of Motion Picture and Television Producers (AMPTP) started in May, and it hinges on profit sharing in the form of residual rates and writers getting paid for their time as opposed to simply for their product.

For now, it is in a holding pattern, with executives on vacation and studios still accessing a backlog of already produced material.

The role of algorithms — referred to increasingly as artificial intelligence — in the writing process is also a point of contention.

AI can now pull language from training data sets and fit it into the narrative formulas of commercial television, which have been highly regimented by advertising and subscription-based business models for decades.

But with a surge in the amount of produced television content in recent years along with increasing access to international media markets by streamers, the incentives to wrap the strike up quickly and get back to making films and TV shows may be lacking.

“The vice president of the [WGA] East, she assured me the other day that she had it on good authority that all of the rental yachts from Santa Barbara down to San Diego had been rented through the end of summer,” veteran TV writer and journalist David Simon said on a podcast episode released Friday.

“All the execs are gone for the summer, I don’t know if that’s true or not. What I do feel is that this is being dictated by Wall Street and by the people who answer to Wall Street,” Simon said.

“Their metrics are ambitious in the sense of preserving AI and eliminating term employment for film and TV writers. They have a ways to go before they give up on that notion. And they’re going to spend the summer, at least, inflicting pain on us as we walk the line,” he said.

Members of the Writers Guild of America picket outside CBS Television City on May 2 in the Fairfax District of Los Angeles. (AP Photo/Damian Dovarganes)

Dems rush to back up striking writers

Many Democrats in Congress have been sounding notes of solidarity with writers.

“With the era of streaming content upon us, the WGA’s fight for better pay and wages is critical for those who work hard to make the entertainment industry the creative powerhouse that it is today,” Rep. Brad Sherman (D-Calif.), who sits on the House Financial Services Committee and represents segments of Los Angeles where many people in the entertainment industry work and reside, told The Hill in a statement.

“I stand shoulder to shoulder with the WGA in their quest to ensure a better livelihood in a changing economy. I urge both sides to come to a swift and equitable understanding,” he added.

Rep. Brad Sherman (D-Calif.)
Rep. Brad Sherman (D-Calif.) speaks during a March 29 House Financial Services Committee hearing in Washington. (Greg Nash)

Rep. Adam Schiff (D-Calif.) joined picket lines in May in support of the WGA West, brandishing a placard that evoked the Star Wars film series with the slogan “Unions Strike Back” and referencing the Star Trek television franchise with the tweaked motto, “Live long and pay up.”

“All workers should be compensated fairly, including in a changing economy. I join the chorus of Americans supporting WGA West [and] WGA East and urge both sides to come to a swift agreement that honors the hard work and dedication of writers,” Rep. Katie Porter (D-Calif.) said in May.

House Speaker Kevin McCarthy’s (R-Calif.) office told The Hill that he is also monitoring the situation given the entertainment industry’s large impact on California’s economy.

Streaming and online profits remain key issues for WGA

The WGA did not respond to a request for comment on the status of negotiations.

The AMPTP said their member companies “remain united in their desire to reach a deal that is mutually beneficial to writers and the health and longevity of the industry, and to avoid hardship to the thousands of employees who depend upon the industry for their livelihoods.”

Experts in organized labor say that what’s fundamentally at issue in the current dispute is the same thing that prompted the last writers’ strike from 2007-08: The portion of profits from streaming and online distribution that writers can have as opposed to the studios and their investors, who get paid in the form of returns to their ownership shares.

“Just look at Scarlett Johansson and the lawsuit she had with Disney,” said Arthur Wheaton, director of labor studies at the Cornell School of Industrial and Labor Relations, in an interview, referring to a dispute over a payout for the movie “Black Widow” settled in 2021.

“[Johansson’s] revenue was based on how much [the movie made] at the box office. And then Disney decided to release it to the Disney [streaming] channel to get more people to subscribe, which dramatically altered her anticipated payout by the tens of millions of dollars. And the same thing is true for all of the writers if they were expecting to get a box office percentage and then [there’s a decision] to stream it on Netflix,” he said.

Data from the Nielsen media ratings agency shows that streaming overtook cable in popularity as a method of content distribution for the first time in July of 2022. 

The gap has since widened, with streaming now accounting for 36.4 percent of all TV viewing, cable accounting for 31.1 percent, and broadcast making up 22.8 percent. The top five streaming brands are now Youtube, Netflix, Hulu, Amazon Prime Video and Disney Plus, according to Nielsen.

Union flexes muscle across business landscape

The writers’ strike, which affects more than 11,000 WGA members and was authorized by 97 percent of the voting membership, comes after a spike in the number of strikes and work stoppages in 2022 and a wider period of more intense labor activity.

Logistics and transportation services have been a hotspot of organizing after the supply chain disruptions in the early part of the pandemic, with dock workers and longshoremen stopping work to secure a better contract earlier this year and railroad workers threatening a major strike last year in which the White House intervened.

A potential strike by Teamsters working for shipping giant UPS could come to fruition later this month if a new contract isn’t agreed upon before a July 31 deadline.


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