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Wake-up call

Writers block: Streaming tears


TV's "The View" and the WWE professional wrestling shows are unaffected by the strike by the more than 11,000 member Writers Guild of America against the Alliance of Motion Picture and Television Producers, so we can all at least sleep in peace knowing that our cultural needs are still being attended to.

The Fallon, Kimmel and Meyers stages have gone dark. They claim it was out of solidarity, and maybe it was. Perhaps they didn't want to embarrass themselves. That would not have been an issue with Groucho Marx. 

The "reality shows" are continuing to spit out their overdoses of unreality. But the great unwashed may soon be deprived of their soap operas.

The strike vote was 97.8 percent in favor. The battle lines are drawn and they are hard solid lines. Two weeks have passed and the fronts are widening.

Sticking points include the right of creative artists to protect the legacy of what they have earned, from market forces, corporate greed and de facto confiscation. The studio bosses want essentially to strip the writers of their full-time positions and relegate them to "gig economy" beggars.

They want not merely to upgrade artificial intelligence as a tool, but to humanize it as authors of literary material, negating the primal element of human inspiration. Algorithms can replicate craft but not replace genius. Or even flair.

This is the sixth time that screenwriters have been forced to withdraw their labor. All signs are that it will break the 1988 record of 153 days. The main stumbling block did not exist back then. 

It's called streaming, which Verizon defines as "any media content — live or recorded — delivered to computers and mobile devices via the internet and played back in real time.” That includes podcasts, webcasts, music videos, TV shows and movies.

“Years ago, writers could receive residual payments whenever a show was licensed — into syndication or through DVD sales. But global streaming services like Netflix and Amazon have cut off those distribution arms and pay a fixed residual instead,” The New York Times reported.

The writers have proposed a minimum duration of employment, but the AMPTP is "stonewalling" and arguing, according to The Hollywood Reporter, that "the proposal would result in the superfluous hiring of writers that amounts to a hiring quota that is incompatible with the creative nature of the industry.”

The AMPTP's strategy is to put the strikers between the proverbial rock and a hard place. According to a letter sent to showrunners by the assistant chief counsel for the Disney-owned ABC Signature and obtained by The Hollywood Reporter, Disney's legal department warned them that "you as a showrunner or other writer-producer that you are not excused from performing your duties as a showrunner and/or producer on your series as a result of the WGA strike. Your personal services agreement with [the] Studio requires that you perform your showrunner and/or producing duties even if the WGA attempts to fine you for performing such services during the strike."

But the WGA will deny membership to any non-Guild member who does any projects for any companies against which the union is striking.

Streaming has been a godsend to the studios and to couch potatoes. Former movie theater patrons no longer need to queue at the lobby's concession stand and agonize over a choice between Milk Duds and Good & Plenty.

But streaming has been a scourge to writers. It has decimated their residuals, stretched out gaps between jobs, and reduced by almost two-thirds the "writing rooms" where creative teams generate content for shows.

They used to work on broadcast television series plots for 10 months of the year, but writers for streaming companies now work intermittently, on truncated projects and with skeletal staff. The companies outright refuse to pay the same rate for a streaming service as they would for a movie theater release. Instead of conceding at least a minimum compensation, the studios pushed day-rate pay.

And they are treating as top secret classified information viewership data that the writers need to know for professional as well as personal financial reasons.

Streaming is a totally different production model from broadcast and cable, which, according to Variety, is "assembly line" where "shows were written, produced and distributed in a tightly orchestrated sequence.” By contrast, Variety continued, “The streaming production model runs on a longer timespan, more akin to film, where writing and production are separated and shows are produced long before they are distributed.” 

Considering the rarity of their skills, the demand for their product, their relevance to culture and the laws of economics, these union workers deserve far greater compensation than the barely civil-service wages that some staff writers are getting.

"Video Killed the Radio Star" was the first video to be broadcast over MTV.  Streaming is killing screenwriting. And artificial intelligence is slaying the copywriters.

The WGA wants some regulation that works for everybody. "Science fiction has a way of becoming science fact,” observes a flesh-and-blood New York Times writer.

There is no magic bullet to resolve the impasse between the AMPTP and the WGA. Even magic wands depend on the real world for efficacy.  

The union is standing its ground, because otherwise the earth will open up beneath them and their careers will be swallowed up. The bosses, being pig-headed, are entrenched. 

Is there a knight in shining armor chomping at the bit for a cue to ride in with a silver bullet wrapped  in purse strings? California Governor Gavin Newsom has volunteered to be on call.

His state is being financially walloped by the strike. Can he leverage that battering to optimize his personal political advantage? 

Timing is everything.

His concern for the body politic is a persistent flicker. But  the eternal flame of his ambition burns hotter than a pepper sprout. So he has the incentive and the drive. 

When bosses plead poverty, based on incapacity rather than unwillingness, as a justification for repelling union demands, some unions, under special circumstances, may request release of management's complete raw (not cooked) financial records to have an independent forensic audit performed on them.

If it is then determined that management's excuses have merit, the union may decide whether or not to accept it is a factor in negotiation strategy and to modify demands accordingly.

But this hasn't happened here. It's not the playbook of show business.

With streaming, the writers get less than half the pay of broadcast series, and the streaming season is much shorter. Budgets have grown but writers ' portions have shrunk.

"Since 2018, inflation-adjusted pay for screenwriters has fallen 14 percent. For writers-producers, pay has sunk 23 percent,” reports CBS News, citing the WGA.

According to Variety, the writers are seeking a revised "formula for streaming residuals to pay more for hit shows and to pay more with the growth in international subscribers." 

They want their "overscale" pay substantially increased and "span protection" expanded at a total cost of an estimated $600 million, which is less than chicken feed to the studios, considering the spiraling inflation of farm grain.

In the mid-20th century, many newspaper-related jobs were replaced by automation. It was done in the name of progress, efficiency and cost-savings. There are ridiculous allegations that the WGA is being obstructionist like the typesetters of yesteryear.

They are not opposed to technological improvements, or even a blanket banning of artificial intelligence in screenwriting. But they don't want to be incrementally liquidated either.

The burden of satisfying the WGA's modest wage request would be split among Sony, Netflix, Amazon, Paramount and Disney and a few others, which would amount to any Thursday's liquid lunches for studio executives.

In the nearly a century of the WGA's existence, with contracts expiring at intervals of a few years, there has almost always been a more-or-less amicable settlement without a work stoppage.  It will be a hardship for the writers to refrain from any activity that is related to their productivity.

The Directors Guild of America began their negotiations on May 10th and next month the actors' union, SAG-AFTRA, whose contract expires June 30, will start its own. Its 19,000 members share many of the same concerns as the WGA, and the pressure on AMPTP will intensify.

"Writers Unite: You have nothing to lose but your gags." That semi-original manifesto has traction. Writers guilds in the United Kingdom, Canada, Australia, Israel, Sweden and Ireland are not crossing Creativity's picket line. They have suspended their contributions to American projects until the strike is resolved.

The strikers are artists and unionists.That's a positive double-whammy. We must not be glued to our recliners. We must be in their corner.


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