WGA Strike explained: What the writers want, how it affects TV, and why you should care
If you’re a fan of television and movies, you’ve very likely seen news about a nationwide WGA strike for writers in the entertainment industry. While it can be frustrating to learn that your favorite series may have come to a stop or could be affected by this in the future, what the writers are asking for largely benefits audiences as well over the coming years.
Here’s a breakdown on what exactly it is that the writers are asking for, why it’s important to set new conditions in their contracts, how it affects current and upcoming projects, and why fans should care about everything that’s going on.
Who are the groups of either side of the WGA strike?
If you’ve seen anything about the writers’ strike, you’ve likely read about the WGA. The Writer’s Guild of America (WGA) was first founded in 1933, and almost all television and film writers (along with writers of some scripted podcasts and other digital media) are members of the WGA. It’s the WGA’s Basic Agreement contract that writers work under.
Though you may find an extremely small number of exceptions, all of the scripted television shows you watch are written by writers who are members of the WGA, and the guild works to negotiate contracts for writers, ensure fair wages and benefits for its members, and to help protect the “creative and economic rights of its members.”
On the other side of the negotiation table is The Alliance of Motion Picture and Television Producers (AMPTP), a group that represents over 350 production companies in the country, including Warner Bros. Entertainment, Universal Studios, Paramount, Netflix, Walt Disney Studios, Amazon, Sony, and many others.
As the current contract between the WGA and the AMPTP was set to expire on May 1, 2023, representatives from the AMPTP and WGA have been meeting to try and agree on a new contract, but the negotiations were not successful and there was no agreement at the time of the current contract’s expiration – and so a strike was called for all members nationwide to stop work immediately.
WGA strike: What do the writers want in their new contract?
The Writers Guild has published a list of proposals that they requested to be part of the new contract with the AMPTP, and they’ve released the AMPTP’s replies to their members publicly. Those specific proposals (and the counteroffers) can be read here.
There are a few themes within the writer’s requests that led to the WGA strike: asking for better pay and stability for writers, restricting the use of artificial intelligence in writing, and improving pay and residuals for streaming content – something that has significantly fallen behind since the introduction of streaming.
For television, the WGA is focused on ensuring that writers rooms continue to work in a way that best serves writers and the shows themselves. Over the past several years, writers’ rooms have gotten much smaller as the number of episodes ordered per season has declined. In the past on broadcast television, most shows had between 12 – 24 episodes, but now it’s common for shows industry-wide to have only 6-10 episodes. This means fewer writers being hired into the room, sometimes omitting roles for lower-level writers.
Writers working on a 6-episode show are only working in a writers’ room for 2-3 months and they are paid per week. For example, if that’s the only show you write on, you’re only getting paid for the few weeks that you’re contracted. Working on a 20+ episode show, you would be employed for most of the year, but now writers are having to land several jobs in a smaller amount of time, with much more competition for fewer spots.
From an industry-growth perspective, this also means that not enough younger writers or lower-level writers are getting the experiences they need to learn and progress in the industry to be able to take on more responsibilities on future shows. To save money, some production companies won’t pay for writers to stay on through production or post-production, often leaving re-writes and edits to only one person. Younger writers aren’t learning all the skills they need to move up or to be successful as showrunners in the future.
To combat this, the WGA is proposing that writers rooms have a minimum number of writers that must be hired. In addition, certain shows would be required to keep a set number of writers working throughout the show’s production. Read more about the specifics of this proposal on the WGA’s site under “Duration of Employment”.
Though the AMPTP did counteroffer on a few of these requests by agreeing to some increase in weekly rates for writers, there was no progress on ensuring writers could stay employed for a guaranteed number of weeks. When it came to paying writers during post-production, the AMPTP outright rejected the proposal with no counteroffer.
Why are residuals important?
Writers are paid for writing scripts, but they are also paid residuals after their work airs on television. But with streaming, studios have not been held to the same standards as cable regarding residual payments. When streaming first started, residuals weren’t fought for because it hadn’t been proven that streamers would be profitable. But now that profitability has been proven, the WGA is seeking fair streaming residuals.
For example, a writer on Abbott Elementary shared that she earns $13,500 for an episode that re-airs on ABC. But with the show also available on Hulu, Disney Plus, and HBO Max, the network doesn’t have the incentive to re-air. And her residual check for her episode being available on streaming sites? $700.
In the past, writers depended on residual payments as a form of income in-between jobs, but because of streaming, that revenue has dramatically declined. In the new contract proposal, the WGA is focused on improving residuals for writers who have episodes on streaming platforms, something that the AMPTP rejected. The WGA is also asking that streamers be more transparent about how many views shows receive, data that is not often made public even though broadcast ratings are accessible.
Why is there so much discussion about AI?
Whether you’re a fan of AI technology like ChatGPT or not, writers have expressed significant concerns of how the AMPTP could choose to use AI in the near future, and how that would affect script writing. The WGA is asking that “AI can’t write or rewrite literary material; can’t be used as source material; and MBA-covered material can’t be used to train AI.” The AMPTP rejected this and instead offered to host yearly “meetings to discuss advancements in technology.”
Aside from the obvious issue of writers losing jobs because of AI, there is also a concern about studios using AI to create an initial draft and that a writer would then hired to “re-write”, something that studios believe would save them money. Writers are also pushing back against the idea that AI could give notes on script drafts, or that they could be asked to utilize AI for a project.
Doctor Strange writer C. Robert Cargill expressed this on Twitter earlier this week, saying “The immediate fear of AI isn’t that us writers will have our work replaced by artificially generated content. It’s that we will be underpaid to rewrite that trash into something we could have done better from the start. This is what the WGA is opposing and the studios want.”
How does the WGA strike affect current television series?
And so because of all these conditions have not been agreed upon, as of May 2, 2023, there was a complete stoppage of work from WGA members. All writers rooms working on new episodes have stopped, all writers who were on set or in post-production to oversee work have left, and no writers can meet with studios or sell any new content, among other rules.
Generally speaking, this means that new episodes of current series will likely be delayed (unless the episode was finished or very near completion). It could also mean that upcoming seasons of series will be shortened to have a smaller number of episodes, or could be canceled altogether if the strike continues for a longer period of time. However, some projects that have completed scripts will continue with filming, but without writers present on set. Here is a current list of all series who are affected.
For any show that was already completed, the series will be released according to the network’s preferred schedule. Like many of us probably remember from 2020 when production shut down, most streaming sites had several months-worth of new completed shows and films that they were able to release, and the same can be said now.
The immediate effect of the strike was felt in talk shows, late-night television, and variety series like Saturday Night Live, which have had to stop because their writers work in the same day that a new episode airs. But for shows currently in production that have some completed scripts, those shows may be able to continue… until they run out of scripts.
In terms of the quality of episodes currently in production, no writers will be able to make any changes or fine-tune edits to scripts in production. WGA members will also not be able to participate in the post-production process, which means editing could happen without showrunners or writers present. Projects continuing without writers on board might not be something that fans want to see happen.
A memorable example of this is from the 2007-08 WGA strike when the James Bond film Quantum of Solace went into production without writers. It was up to Daniel Craig and the director to try and make re-writes as they were needed, which led to a decline in the quality of the movie (as said by Craig himself). So, while we all want our favorite shows and films to be released on schedule, it also may be beneficial to have those projects wait until the strike is resolved and writers can return to work.
Will reality TV and non-fiction also be affected by the WGA strike?
Even though these production companies also produce reality television shows, the writing that happens (game show questions, narration, speeches from competition show hosts, etc) is not covered by the WGA Basic Agreement – and a majority of writers and producers in reality are not WGA members – which is why unscripted television is largely unaffected.
You may see an increase in the amount of reality television over the course of the year if the WGA strike continues because these series will be able to continue even when scripted shows cannot. Workers in unscripted television are not seeing a boom in jobs so far, but if the strike continues for a longer period of time, there will likely be an increase in reality content.
Why should TV and movie fans care about the WGA strike?
If you’re here on Hidden Remote and you’ve made it this far into this article, you’re likely a huge fan of television series and movies! Writers care passionately about storytelling, and much of what they are fighting for will only improve the long-term quality of the series and films that we all love.
Personally, I would never want artificial intelligence to be responsible for writing a new episode of my favorite show, nor would I want AI to adapt my favorite book into a screenplay. I also want to make sure that lower-level writers are being set up for success so that when those writers are in show-running positions years from now, series are as strong as they can be.
The WGA estimates that their requests would “gain writers approximately $429 million per year” collectively from the AMPTP. In 2022, just 8 of the CEOs’ salaries at large production studios was over $770 million.
For news and updates regarding the WGA strike, be sure to check the Guild’s official website and to follow them on social media.