Two Strikes, and You’re Out!

May 22, 2023 | Business, Technology, Writing

It’s that time again.

What? No! I’m not talking about my highly informative and brilliant miniseries called “Hints”. It is not time for hints.

No, I’m talking about the current writers’ strike in Hollywood. It’s time again for one of those, apparently. They seem to happen once a decade with regularity. Which lands us here, in another terrible imbroglio.

Mama Mia! Here We Go Again!

This blog is now so old that it has witnessed two writers’ strikes (and maybe a third one somewhere in the middle; I seem to recall an almost-strike or mini-strike that occurred a few years after the last big one, but I’m too lazy to look it up). During the last big strike, I felt moved enough to comment on the situation.

In summary: I supported the last strike, even though I’m not a union zealot. The previous strike’s stated aims of giving writers a share of residuals from streaming was both necessary and intuitive. I don’t know enough about the eventual settlement to say whether the stated aims were ever achieved, but I know that the strike did end.

Naturally, you would assume it to be just as necessary and intuitive for me to support the current strike. I am a writer—moreso now than I was in 2017. Surely, as a published author, I would hear the plight of the Hollywood writers and ride to their support, pledging my voice, my platform, my money, and my indefatigable male stamina to provide Hollywood’s writers with whatever support, and heart-pounding satisfaction, they need during this trying time.

And it’s true that the opponents of the current strike, the AMPTP—which I will henceforth address as “the producers’ alliance”—have stooped to some dirty tactics in an attempt to nullify the strike. They’ve demanded that writers come into work anyway, even threatening to fire writers who do not comply. I seem to recall a similar song and dance happening during the 2017 strike. The producers’ alliance is hardly innocent.

So you’ve convinced yourself that the Hollywood Writers have their throats full of my support—er, that Hollywood’s writers have my full-throated support. I can certainly see how you could come to that conclusion.

But the thing is…

This Time is Different

Not all strikes are created equal. And not all situations are, either. The 2017 strike was almost entirely about enabling writers to get paid for all the work they do, whether that work was broadcasted over radio waves, sold through recordable media, or streamed over the internet.

The current strike is less about making sure every act of writing is paid for, and more about giving writers control over how shows are produced.

One of the biggest headscratchers among the current demands is that the writers’ guild wants to set minimums for a TV show’s writers’ rooms. They want to forbid production companies from having less than six writers working on any given episode. When you consider that an episode of a television show can handily be written by a single person, and that this has been true for the entire life of televised entertainment, you can’t help but wonder what the writers’ guild is thinking.

And the writers’ guild will respond by saying that establishing a minimum size for every writers’ room guarantees employment for the ever-swelling pool of television writers. If every episode of television is forced to have at least six writers, then this creates an artificial demand for writers, which guarantees employment. Even for those writers who are not so in demand.

In other words, this provision is designed to prevent bad writers from being fired.

Of course, it doesn’t get spun that way. If you ask the writer’s guild, this is about establishing writing as a salaried occupation. They are merely protecting writing from becoming a dreaded “gig economy”. And surely that is worth fighting for, right?

But the thing is…

They’re Ignoring Reality

Writing, by its very nature, has always been a gig economy. I’m a freaking novelist! Nobody employs me to write novels. I do not get health care or retirement benefits (except for the ones I create myself), and the same holds true for all novelists, from the smallest indie hack to the biggest superstar author.

And this is not exclusive to novelists. Almost all creative writing is paid for through contract work. Whether it be radio, television, movies, or books. Big movie studios don’t keep writers on a payroll. They effectively hire and fire for a single production job. The writer gets paid in residuals for that job in perpetuity (or, at least, they’re supposed to), but the writers are not payroll employees of the studio. They are free agents.

The only time when keeping a cadre of in-house writers makes economic sense is for periodical publications—newspapers and magazines. For all other writers, contract work is the norm. And that contract usually involves forfeiting your copyright over a work—except in the case of book authors.

And now you know why I write books instead of movies.

That said, establishing (and increasing) residuals is one of the current strike’s priorities. Surely, if the writers’ guild would abandon the pipe dream of stuffing the writers’ rooms of every TV show, then I would support the rest of the strike. It would only be appropriate.

But the thing is…

Hollywood Writers are Weaker Now than They’ve ever Been

There’s a famous quote that I have used before on this blog. Here it is again:

The writer is the most important person in Hollywood, but we must never tell the sons-of-bitches.

IRVING THALBERG

And that used to be true. You couldn’t produce a movie, or a TV show, without a script. And a good script would almost universally lead to a good movie. And that script will never exist if you don’t have writers.

But you’ll notice that the quote specifically says that writers are the most important people in Hollywood. It never says, just as I would never say, that writers are the most important people in the world.

And, unfortunately, the world is what Hollywood’s writers are now competing against. Do you realize how many hit shows and movies are now produced outside the United States?

There is no writers’ strike in Japan.

There is no writers’ strike in England.

There is no writers’ strike in South Korea.

And, frankly, there is no writers’ strike in the era where the greatest shows ever made were produced—the 80s, 90s, and early 2000s.

Americans will gladly watch good shows that were produced in other countries…or in the golden past. Streaming services will gladly pick up the next Demon Slayer, the next Sherlock, the next Squid Game wherever they can find it. If not, then they can encourage viewers to rediscover Cheers, The Golden Girls, Twin Peaks, Family Matters, or The Mary Tyler Moore Show. Even if streaming services never produce another scripted show ever again, Americans will never run out of entertainment.

As such, writers are less necessary than ever before. Many of the most watched shows don’t even need writers, because those are “reality television” shows. A significant contingent of the viewing public are satisfied with Survivor and The Masked Singer. And those who prefer scripted entertainment can get it from YouTube and TikTok.

Television writers are less important now than at any point in history—possibly less so now than before the invention of television. A writers’ strike might have ground the entertainment cartel to a halt in previous eras, but those days are gone.

If the producers’ alliance, and the studios, get fed up with the writers’ demands, they can simply fire them, and outsource their writing needs to other countries, other times, or forego the need for writers altogether.

But surely the world still needs great writing! Surely, there are American television writers who have groundbreaking ideas and need to be heard! Surely, the next unmissable American TV show is just around the corner! Surely, we must prepare for it to happen!

But the thing is…

The Current Crop of Writers could be Replaced by Robots

I previously speculated about whether AI could ever replace human writers. It was one of my earliest posts. And, frankly, I could not have predicted how quickly artificial writers would be developed.

Now, after studying how AI writers are progressing, and observing the outputs of said AIs, I can safely say that AI writing, while competent, does not rise to the level of greatness. A talented, skilled, and wise human writer will outperform their AI counterpoint on quality, ten times out of ten. The greatest human writers never need fear being replaced by robots.

However—and I am editorializing—the current generation of TV writers is not the greatest. The majority of its members are not intelligent enough to outperform an AI.

Are you outraged that I would make such a claim? Well, you should be. Because I lied: I wasn’t actually editorializing. The inferiority of the current crop of writers is an objective fact.

Yes, the past few years have given us wonderful efforts, such as are found in Stranger Things. But for every Stranger Things, there are one hundred She-Hulks. AI could not make another Cheers or Twin Peaks, but it could easily make another Y: the Last Man, The Rings of Power, or Willow. Come to think of it, current AI could have produced better versions of those shows—ones that still wouldn’t rise to the level of greatness, but would at least be edible.

And now you know why the writers’ guild is pushing for mandatory minimums in the writers’ rooms. Too many of the current crop of writers can’t compete against the few virtuosos still working in the field. Expanding the size of writers’ rooms is the only way to keep the hacks from being forced out by AI.

Oh, and the writers’ guild is trying to bind the producers’ alliance into a contract that will forever bar them from using AI writers. For comparison, imagine a world where horse breeders somehow outlawed the automobile.

Now, it would be perfectly reasonable, if we were in a golden age of television where every show was a hit, for the writers to demand more monetary compensations. Unfortunately, that makes it just as reasonable, in a period where TV writers churn out flop after flop, for the producers’ alliance to refuse any such demands.

If you’re going to ask for a raise, you had better be bringing the goods. The current cadre of TV writers is not bringing them, and hasn’t brought them year upon year for far too long.

And here’s the thing…

The Present Writers’ Strike Will Fail

Don’t get me wrong: it will still be spun as a victory. After losing the chance to raise residuals, increase the size of writers’ rooms, or protect their industry from AI, the writers’ guild will settle for, say, a few more reserved parking spaces. They will proceed, then, to declare a great victory, after which every Hollywood writer will be more expendable than ever before.

The crux of the guild’s perennial losing strategy is this: the guild is designed to protect all its members, including the ones who are unworthy of protection. Every time it strikes, it campaigns for protections that will benefit the hacks just as much as the greats. Any success by the guild, therefore, allows the hacks to parasitize the system, enjoying protections and compensation while producing nothing—or something even worse than nothing: crap.

Most unions experience this same problem. Hence why I’m not the most ardent of union pushers.

How They could Turn It Around

If the writers’ guild was smart, instead of fighting for increased residuals, it would institute an additional ladder system of pay. If a show gets one million streams, the writers get a bonus of X dollars. If it gets ten million streams, an even bigger bonus of Y dollars is paid out. Etc., Etc.

Such compensation ladders are already common in movie production. They reward talented people who add to a project’s quality and audience appeal, but give no such benefit to trash writers who have nothing to offer.

But the guild will never make such a play, because it wouldn’t protect all television writers—just the ones worth the paper they’re printed on.

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