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Writers Guild of America goes on strike

Members of the Writers Guild of America walk the picket line in 2007.
Spencer Platt
Getty Images
Members of the Writers Guild of America walk the picket line in 2007.

Updated May 2, 2023 at 3:16 AM ET

Television and film writers have gone on strike against major Hollywood studios: Netflix, Amazon, Apple, Disney, Discovery-Warner, NBC Universal, Paramount and Sony. The Writers Guild of America and the Alliance of Motion Picture and Television Producers, which represents the studios, failed to come up with a new three-year contract in advance of the old deal expiring at midnight Monday. Representatives of the WGA voted to call a strike, which went into effect at 12:01 a.m. PT on Tuesday.

"The companies' behavior has created a gig economy inside a union workforce, and their immovable stance in this negotiation has betrayed a commitment to further devaluing the profession of writing," the WGA said in a statement Monday night. "From their refusal to guarantee any level of weekly employment in episodic television, to the creation of a 'day rate' in comedy variety, to their stonewalling on free work for screenwriters and on AI for all writers, they have closed the door on their labor force and opened the door to writing as an entirely freelance profession."

The WGA said picketing would begin Tuesday afternoon.

In a statement sent to NPR sent shortly before the announcement of the strike call, AMPTP said it had presented a package proposal to the guild "which included generous increases in compensation for writers as well as improvements in streaming residuals." According to that statement, the studio's alliance told the WGA it was prepared to improve that offer "but was unwilling to do so because of the magnitude of other proposals still on the table that the Guild continues to insist upon. The primary sticking points are 'mandatory staffing,' and 'duration of employment' — Guild proposals that would require a company to staff a show with a certain number of writers for a specified period of time, whether needed or not."

Since negotiations began in March, the WGA had been asking for higher wages, healthcare benefits and pensions, and in particular, better compensation when their work shows up on streaming platforms such as Netflix and Amazon Prime.

"Driven in large part by the shift to streaming, writers are finding their work devalued in every part of the business," the guild said in a bulletin to its members. "While company profits have remained high and spending on content has grown, writers are falling behind."

The strike comes at a time when there are increasing concerns about the profitability of streaming, and fears of a possible economic recession. Companies such as Disney, Warner Bros. Discovery, Amazon and Netflix have laid off thousands of employees.

I don't get paid every time somebody watches it. I don't get paid every time somebody says, 'yes, chef.'

Still, Alex O'Keefe, one of the writers of the Hulu seriesThe Bear, says that the writers aren't getting a fair cut of what studios are making. "I'm really grateful to work on a show about the everyday struggle that so many Americans are living through," he told NPR. "But at the same time, I've seen that there's complete lack of care towards our working conditions. It makes it so difficult to produce the content that then makes them millions and millions of dollars."

O'Keefe says even though The Bear was a hit, "I don't get paid every time somebody watches it. I don't get paid every time somebody says, 'yes, chef.' I don't expect to make the majority of the profits or anything like that. I just added my spice. It was a whole operation to cook up that show. But we don't receive the residuals that people associate with television shows."

Britanni Nichols, who writes for the ABC showAbbott Elementary, says that between seasons, she used to be able to live off residuals she got when the network re-aired an episode she wrote. She got half her original writing fee each time. Now, when her episodes are sold to the streamers, she gets just 5.5 percent of her writing fee.

"You're getting checks for $3, $7, $10. It's not enough to put together any sort of consistent lifestyle," she told NPR. "It can really be a real shock. ... sometimes you get a stack of checks for $0.07."

Writers in Hollywood are basically gig workers with a union, constantly looking for their next job.

And TV writers say that streaming translates to less work and less money, with studios asking for series to last eight to 10 episodes a season, rather than the traditional 22 episode seasons on network TV.

Even writers on hit shows say they not living some kind of lavish Hollywood dream lifestyle; O'Keefe says he's basically broke in between gigs.

"I live a very working class existence and there's nothing to be ashamed about it," he says. "But yeah, I've reached a point that I don't know how I can continue to survive in this business as it is."

Nichols says while she's been working steadily on Abbott Elementary, her next gig isn't guaranteed.

"It could be right back to a really sort of bad situation where I'm again, struggling to pay rent. And that shouldn't be the case for someone who's going to be a decade into their careers, working for an Emmy-winning television show," she says. "I don't think anyone would look at my career and say, 'oh, that person still has to worry at this point,' but that's just where things are right now."

Other TV writers say they're now being asked to work on spec in what are called "mini rooms": They work alone on scripts that may or may not get greenlit, with no guarantee they'll get to be in the official writer's room even if the show does get picked up.

Another concern by the WGA is the use of artificial intelligence in creative content.

In anticipation of a strike, studio executives had reportedly been stockpiling scripts for months.

"We have a large base of upcoming shows and films from around the world. We could probably serve our members better than most," Ted Sarandos, co-CEO of Netflix, told investors during a recent earnings call. "We do have a pretty robust slate of releases to take us into a long time."

Sarandos said the last writer's strike, in 2007, was "devastating" for everyone, including viewers. Hollywood production shut down for 100 days, and the local economy lost an estimated $2.1 billion. The effect on viewers was felt immediately on late night TV shows and other daily productions.

Back then, writers were asking for better compensation when their work went on DVD's and internet downloads, like iTunes. This time, much of it has to do with the streamers.

Copyright 2023 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

As an arts correspondent based at NPR West, Mandalit del Barco reports and produces stories about film, television, music, visual arts, dance and other topics. Over the years, she has also covered everything from street gangs to Hollywood, police and prisons, marijuana, immigration, race relations, natural disasters, Latino arts and urban street culture (including hip hop dance, music, and art). Every year, she covers the Oscars and the Grammy awards for NPR, as well as the Sundance Film Festival and other events. Her news reports, feature stories and photos, filed from Los Angeles and abroad, can be heard on All Things Considered, Morning Edition, Weekend Edition, Alt.latino, and npr.org.