Journalist says strike represents an ‘existential moment’ for Hollywood’s writers
TONYA MOSLEY, HOST:
This is FRESH AIR. I’m Tonya Mosley. The Writers Guild of America is on strike. And you may have noticed some of your favorite shows, like “Jimmy Kimmel Live!,” “The Late Show With Stephen Colbert” and “Saturday Night Live,” are in reruns or have gone dark. And soon, we could see the strike’s impact on scripted television and cable and streaming productions. More than 11,000 writers represented by the WGA are at an impasse on a contract with the Alliance of Motion Picture and Television Producers, which represents Hollywood studios, network TV and streaming services. The main sticking points are money and job security. The WGA argues that while streaming has skyrocketed, pay for the people who write shows and movies has not. Writers and supporters have formed picket lines over the last few weeks in front of studios in Los Angeles and New York. Actors Angela Kinsey, Creed Bratton and Kate Flannery of the series “The Office” recently spoke from the picket lines in LA about the importance of writers.
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ANGELA KINSEY: Hey, everybody.
KATE FLANNERY: Hey, everybody. Three actors here who used to be on “The Office,” and we can’t talk because our words come from writers.
KINSEY: That’s right.
FLANNERY: We need the writers. We need a good deal for them. Support for them supports us all. WGA strong.
KINSEY: See that? No words – WGA strong. The entertainment industry is changing. We need to evolve with it, and we need fair compensation for our writers.
CREED BRATTON: What they said.
MOSLEY: That was Angela Kinsey, Creed Bratton and Kate Flannery talking with the WGA Guild West from the picket lines in Los Angeles. Writers are also calling for some sort of regulation of artificial intelligence to protect writers from AI taking over their jobs. John Koblin has been following the strike. He’s a media writer for The New York Times and is the co-author of the book “It’s Not TV: The Spectacular Rise, Revolution, And Future Of HBO.” John, welcome to FRESH AIR.
JOHN KOBLIN: Thanks for having me.
MOSLEY: John, the WGA is calling this an existential moment, saying that streaming has essentially upended the industry model, making it harder for writers to make a living. Can we start by briefly breaking down the differences for a writer working for a show today versus 2007, which was the last time that WGA went on strike? What was the life of a writer typically like before streaming?
KOBLIN: Sure. I mean, if you think back to 2007, network and cable – that’s what dominated television production. And especially a network show, those episode orders per season could be 22, 24, even 26 episodes a season. And if you were a writer staffed on one of those shows, that was a good living, and that was your full-time living. You were a writer for “Desperate Housewives.” You were a writer for “Law & Order.” And that’s just what you did. And it was a pretty good life, whether you were a junior writer or just a very experienced showrunner.
But then, in the last decade, television production has exploded with the advent of streaming. And as a result – and we’ve all noticed this just as consumers of television – the episode orders are much shorter. It could be as little as six, eight, 10, 12 episodes a season. So as a result, writers are working fewer weeks. And streaming has sort of upended every element of production. So as a result, a writer, after working as little as 10 weeks on a show, is then left scrambling to find another job. So despite the fact the studios have invested billions in TV over the last few years, writers have said that their pay has stagnated and that their working conditions have deteriorated.
MOSLEY: OK. Fast-forward today, as we’re talking about that deterioration. I was reading a story of a writer who said they recently worked simultaneously in three writers rooms, optioned two pilots and sold a studio feature on a pitch. And yet they still need it to go on public assistance. Can you break down a little bit more for us why has streaming made this a common reality for writers today? In addition to those shorter time spans of work, it sounds like writers are having to pick up multiple streams of income. It’s essentially turned into a gig economy.
KOBLIN: Yeah. I mean, writers are essentially freelancers, and you are going from gig to gig. But ideally, you’re in a job – in a TV writing job for a year or many years. But with the advent of streaming, it’s sort of changed everything. I mean, there has been this sort of proliferation of this thing called mini rooms or development rooms. And what that means is the studios – before they even greenlight a show, they’ll convene a small group of writers – it could be as little as three, four or five writers – into a room and say, get to work. Just, like, show us what this show could be. So they’ll start sketching out character development, and they’ll even start sketching out scripts – like, as many as four, five, six, seven of those scripts over 10 to 14 weeks.
And then the studios will consider, do we want to make the show or not? Do we like these scripts? Do we like where this story is going? But in that time where they’re deciding, the writers – all of a sudden, they have to go and find another job. So by time the studio has given a green light, by time the studio has said, yes, we are going to make this into a show, the writers might have another job, and then they can’t stick it through with that show. This is one of the things the writers are most concerned about – sort of these development rooms, these mini rooms. And they want to correct the, quote-unquote – what they say are the, quote-unquote, “abuses” of these mini rooms.
MOSLEY: How have these mini rooms disrupted writers’ ability to actually grow in the industry and move up within the industry?
KOBLIN: It’s really interesting. So if you are in this mini room, you’re there anywhere between 10 and 14 weeks, and then off you go. The studio says, we don’t need your services anymore. We’re going to consider whether or not to greenlight the show. You’re left scrambling to find another job. And suddenly, when they do greenlight the show and they decide to start producing the show – that is, they decide to start filming the show – you’re not there.
There’s one writer who I interviewed recently named Mike Schur. He’s the co-creator of “Parks And Recreation” and the creator of “The Good Place.” He told me that when he was a young writer, he worked on the early seasons of “The Office,” and there, he learned how to write a script and rewrite a script. He learned how to work with actors on set. He learned how to scout a location. He learned sort of these weird, specialized crafts like sound mixing and set design. This was stuff that he didn’t know. This was stuff that he couldn’t read in a book. But for decades, television has been sort of – there’s been sort of this apprenticeship where you learn through experience. You learn by being on a show.
And Mike Schur is concerned that with these – with the advent and the proliferation of these mini rooms, all of a sudden, if you’re a young writer, you’re not around on set, and you’re not learning all those special crafts that he learned. You’re not learning what a showrunner didn’t like in your script. And he thinks that this could have a long-term, really devastating effect where you’ve got writers who are really, really talented and have a lot of interesting takes in the world, but when they are asked to create a show, they quite literally will not know how to do it. They will not know all those things that you needed to learn when you were in your 20s or your 30s or your early 40s. They won’t know how to handle it. And he sees a coming crisis if more writers are not around for filming.
MOSLEY: I want to also get into something else. And this is the formula that studios use to pay these writers. Can you give us a simplified version of this formula and how this streaming-first model has not evolved with this formula.
KOBLIN: Sure. If you think back to the days of traditional television – that is, network and cable TV – if you had a hit show, a show that went more than a hundred episodes, you went into syndication. So if you were a writer on an episode of that show and it goes into syndication, which is essentially a rerun – if you see that show on at, like, 6 or 7 o’clock on cable or something, it’s in syndication – you get a check. And if that show got sold overseas, you’d get a check. If that show had a DVD sale, you’d get a check. But if you think of the streaming services that we watch – think of a Netflix or think of an Amazon. These are global streaming services. There is no syndication because if I have a show that went on Netflix in 2015, eight years later, it’s still on Netflix. There are no international deals because Netflix is a global streaming service.
So as a result, all these distribution arms have been cut off and has been replaced with a fixed residual or a sort of royalty. And the writers say that this formula is all messed up. And those checks that they used to get 15, 20, 30 years ago was sort of the lifeblood of the middle-class writer. These were the – this was a source of income that kept you afloat if you were between jobs or you decided to take a break because you wanted to try to figure out how to create your own show or you wanted to write a movie script. Those checks allowed you to go off on this creative endeavor. But the writers argued that those checks in the streaming era are much, much smaller, leaving less room to go ahead and take a sabbatical, essentially, to figure out what you want to do next.
MOSLEY: Let’s take a short break. If you’re just joining us, we’re talking about the writers’ strike in Hollywood with New York Times media writer John Koblin. The Writers Guild of America has been on strike for more than three weeks in a stalemate with television, film and streaming studios over pay and job security, which they argue has not kept up with the tremendous growth of streaming services. This is FRESH AIR.
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MOSLEY: This is FRESH AIR. I’m Tonya Mosley. And if you’re just joining us, I’m talking with New York Times media writer John Koblin, who has been covering the Writers Guild of America Strike in Hollywood. John is the co-author of “It’s Not TV: The Spectacular Rise, Revolution, And Future Of HBO.”
The WGA says that in the last decade, essentially the median weekly writer-producer pay has actually gone down by 4%, or after adjusting for inflation, somewhere around 23%. And screenwriters’ pay has declined by 14%. This seems pretty substantial. What is the WGA proposing the studios actually provide to ensure that they receive what they deem a living wage?
KOBLIN: Essentially, more money. This entire dispute, this entire negotiation, when there were negotiations – the two sides are currently not talking – is basically about money. And what really sort of drives the writers nuts is, they look at 10 years ago, there were something like 300 scripted shows in American entertainment. That number has basically doubled over a decade or doubled – more than doubled over 15 years. So they can see that billions and billions of dollars are being invested. And then they’re saying, why has our pay either been flat or actually gone down, and gone down somewhat significantly when you factor in inflation? And it drives them crazy.
These are the people who are literally creating shows. When you are watching a show and you see created by, that’s a writer. That’s a writer who wrote that first script or a couple of writers who wrote that first script. So they really do feel like they’re left behind, especially when they look at their peers, like actors, who are getting huge sums per episode. You know, one of the things that’s changed in television over the last decade, movie stars were never interested in doing a television show – that is, whether it’s a limited series, which is a one and done season, or a recurring series.
But as television has sort of taken off and become sort of the crown jewel of American entertainment, movie stars have been interested in doing TV. They see that it’s a huge part of the cultural zeitgeist. And as they’ve come into TV, first of all, they like those shorter episode orders because then they don’t have to stick around for 8 or 9 months of the year. They like it when there’s 6 or 7 episodes because it’s less demand of their time. But they also take in a sizable amount of money, like $1 million per episode or $2 million per episode. So the writers are saying, let’s just have our fair share. Like, we deserve more. Like, if everybody else is benefiting from streaming, why aren’t we?
MOSLEY: That’s really interesting because, yes, there used to be that stark line between movie stars and television stars. Part of the reason why we’re seeing these ballooning of budgets, you’re saying, for television series or streaming series is because of the introduction of the movie star.
KOBLIN: Absolutely. And it’s a lot of things, But the introduction of the movie star really put us on sort of this assembly line, on this conveyor belt, that can’t be stopped. And because so many streaming services have come online in the last four years really, it’s become an arms race between everybody. So all of a sudden, you’re competing for that movie star. Or you’re competing for that script. And I’m going to offer more and more and more. And there’s a lot more special effects in these shows. So these budgets have just ballooned everywhere. And Netflix – particularly when they got into original programming in 2012 or 2013, the only way that Netflix could really get a foot in the door and convince Hollywood, hey; you should make a show or movie with us, was by offering just an insane, jaw-dropping amounts of money.
“House Of Cards” – we all remember that, when that debuted in 2013. That was Netflix’s – not their first original show but their first big, ambitious original show. And when they were trying to convince the director, David Fincher, who was one of the big names behind “House Of Cards,” we want you to make this show with us, they gave him an offer that had never been seen in Hollywood before. We are going to give you two seasons, 26 episodes, and we are going to commit a hundred million dollars. That was the most amount of money that had ever been offered for something that hadn’t been seen yet. And that really just changed the whole ballgame.
MOSLEY: We aren’t just talking writers here. Can you lay out some of the ways that a potential strike that lasts well beyond the moment, a prolonged strike, could impact other types of production jobs?
KOBLIN: Yeah. I mean, the effect could be really devastating. Think about – a production is a huge endeavor, and it doesn’t involve just actors and writers and directors. It also involves all the people who help keep a production propped up. That includes crew members. That includes drivers, caterers, security, lumber yard workers, makeup artists. There are a lot of people who help productions, and these are folks who are just getting back on their feet after the pandemic. When the pandemic hit, productions were shut down for months and months and months. And then in early 2021, late 2020, when productions started to come back, you know, these people were – they were wearing masks on set. Like, there were all these, like, crazy procedures in order to avoid getting the virus. And finally, they’re – you know, it’s back – it’s almost back to normal. And now with much of production shut down, a lot of these folks are once again going to be out of work.
In 2007, the writers strike, which – that lasted more than three months. It was a hundred-day strike. That cost the Los Angeles economy an estimated $2.1 billion. So the fallout from this could be significant. I mean, even think about the late-night shows. The late-night shows, as you said earlier, are all dark right now. And so they’ve been dark for 3 1/2 weeks at this point. There are lots of writers who work on those shows. There are also lots of people who aren’t writers who work on those shows. There are producers, security. There’s, like, 200-plus people who work on Stephen Colbert’s late-night show or Seth Meyers’ late-night show or Jimmy Fallon’s. Those people are currently out of work. And it looks like, considering that neither side is talking to each other, they’re going to be out of work for quite a while.
MOSLEY: John, I want to get deeper into the way streaming services have impacted the industry. You’ve written about something that comes into play here, and that’s peak TV. Essentially, we’ve become accustomed to having access to hundreds of shows every year. It’s a guarantee that we’ll always have something new to watch. And you say that peak TV has essentially peaked.
KOBLIN: Yeah. I mean, it’s funny. So we have gotten accustomed over the last 12, 13 years. Each year there are more scripted shows in American entertainment. There was a blip there right around the pandemic, but otherwise it’s just gone up and up and up and up. However, last year, in April of 2022, something very surprising happened. Netflix – in an earnings report, they said that they had lost subscribers for the first time in a decade. It was a shock to everyone in the entertainment industry, and it was a shock to Wall Street. And what occurred in the next couple months is what is called within the entertainment industry the Netflix correction. That’s when everybody said, uh-oh. If that happened to Netflix, the big, mighty Netflix, when is that going to happen to us?
So in the middle of last year, that’s when all the studios became very cautious about ordering new series straight to series, giving them a green light. So suddenly we saw the market drying up. I remember anecdotally talking to executives and producers in the latter part of last year. And they were calling me up, and they were saying, nobody’s buying anything anymore. We haven’t seen this in a really long time. Nobody’s buying anything. And then I went and checked the numbers, and it was true. Finally, the number of scripted shows that were being ordered by the studios was going down.
So this was happening even before a strike, and it’s a trend that has continued into this year. So the days of having more scripted entertainment than the year before – that’s over. Now couple that with a writers strike. And I think by the end of next year – by the middle of next year and certainly by the end of next year, suddenly, when we’re used to four or five or six new shows, like, every couple days and certainly at least a dozen shows every week that we can choose and pick which one we want to watch – those days have come to an end. Some would argue that that’s a good thing because was that glut of programming really good for anybody?
MOSLEY: If you’re just joining us, we’re talking about the writers strike in Hollywood with New York Times media writer John Koblin. The Writers Guild of America has been on strike for more than three weeks in a stalemate with television, film and streaming studios over pay and job security, which they argue has not kept up with the tremendous growth of streaming services. I’m Tonya Mosley. This is FRESH AIR.
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MOSLEY: This is FRESH AIR. I’m Tonya Mosley, and today we’re talking about the writers strike in Hollywood with New York Times media writer John Koblin. More than 11,000 writers represented by the WGA are at an impasse on a contract with the Alliance of Motion Picture and Television Producers, which represents Hollywood studios, network TV and streaming services. The main sticking points are money and job security. Soon we could see the strike’s impact on scripted television and cable and streaming productions. When we left off, Koblin was explaining how the advent of streaming services brought about peak TV. But last year peak TV peaked.
During these times of peak TV, did we see a growth in the number of writers who came into the industry?
KOBLIN: We certainly have a more diverse pool of writers. This is, like, one of the great things that happened from peak TV, where we have shows that just would never have existed 10 or 15 years ago. We have shows really catering to every conceivable demographic. You could stretch all the way back to “Orange Is The New Black,” which debuted on Netflix about a decade ago about a women’s prison, or “Insecure,” a show from Issa Rae about Black female friendships. There are so many gems, so many great shows that the TV studios just wouldn’t have made a decade ago. So we have a much greater – a much wider aperture in terms of the sort of television that we can watch and the sort of television that is catering to different audiences. That’s been a good thing. But what happens on the other side when we start to see the number of scripted shows decline and we have a writers strike right in the middle?
MOSLEY: I want to get into how this also maybe spooked Wall Street, right? So they soured on the spending of billions of dollars. Really, we started to see this shift around this spring. Can you explain what happened?
KOBLIN: Sure. So for years – you know, we were talking about Netflix and just their freewheeling spending habits, which they had to do in order to convince the entertainment industry, TVs and movies over the internet will work. We promise you. But if you don’t believe us, here’s a ton of money. And the reason they had access to all that cash – Wall Street said, go for it. We don’t care what your free cash flow is. We don’t care how profitable you are. Much like the way that, like, an Uber or a Lyft was – they were given permission by investors to spend freely, worry about the profits later, just get market share now. Netflix did the same thing. So as a result, Wall Street – they didn’t care about profits.
Then all of a sudden, when Netflix announces in April of 2022, we’ve lost subscribers for the first time in a decade, it seems like the American market might be saturated. That’s when Wall Street said, oh, that previous strategy, that previous point of view we had – never mind that. All we care about now is profits. So as a result, all these studios who were investing and losing billions of dollars building out their streaming services – all of a sudden, they decided, OK, we have to change in a hurry. We have to satisfy Wall Street. We have to make these things profitable, and we’re going to have to do it quickly. And with that has come a lot of pain.
MOSLEY: Getting back to the writers and where they stand, since the beginning of film and television, they have been complaining that studios basically treat them like second-class citizens. But the other side of this – your colleague, Brooks Barnes, who covers Hollywood as well, actually wrote that privately, numerous studio and streaming service executives portray writers as melodramatic and out of touch. And so I’m just wondering when they say that the writers are out of touch, are they speaking about the economics of the business, what you’re just laying out right now to the realities of the life of a writer?
KOBLIN: Yeah. There has been, like, tensions – like, simmering tensions between the writers and the studios, really going back for a century. The writers have gone on strike multiple times, really, usually, like, once a generation. And that is because they feel like they are not held in the same esteem as directors and actors. And in the current dispute, yeah, the studios and the studio executives and producers will say privately the writers are asking for this massive realignment of the industry. They want to turn the clock back to 2005, when it was just network TV and cable television. Those days are gone. Like, all these things that you’re asking for or many of these things you’re asking for – you’re asking for it to go back to the old days. And unfortunately, those days are gone. This could be an objection with capitalism. OK. But there’s nothing we can do about that. That is what the studios say – that really, what the writers are asking or much of what the writers are asking for is just unrealistic.
MOSLEY: Has the Writers Guild, in any way, taken into consideration all of this, the massive layoffs that have been happening? Are they looking to adapt to a shrinking industry in what they’re proposing to company executives?
KOBLIN: No. I mean, the writers have painted this in really urgent and stark terms, calling it an existential moment, saying the survival of writing as a profession is at stake. They see a complete, total, five-alarm crisis on their hands, and they want to protect this profession. They want to protect the art of screenwriting. And, no, they are not sympathetic to the current job woes of these companies. They will look at the salaries and compensation levels of top executives and say, how are you paying these executives 50, 60, 70, $80 million a year? We’re not even asking for that much.
And another reason that they’re not sympathetic – so they’re negotiating this contract now. Whenever they get a deal – and it might take months to get a deal – it’ll be a three-year contract. And the writers have argued that the media executives have said, OK, our streaming services right now – they’re hemorrhaging cash. But we promise you, Wall Street, that they will be profitable within a year or two. The writers have said, so by 2026, they will be profitable. That’s the next time that we are going to negotiate a contract. We’re not waiting. By that point, it could be too late. By that point, writing really could, as a profession, be completely changed. So we’re not going to wait around for that. This is the moment. It’s right now.
MOSLEY: If you’re just joining us, my guest is John Koblin, media writer for The New York Times. He’s been covering the writers strike in Hollywood and its impact on movies, television and streaming. We’ll be right back. This is FRESH AIR.
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MOSLEY: This is FRESH AIR. Let’s get back to my interview with John Koblin, media writer for The New York Times. He’s covering the writers strike in Hollywood and its impact on movies, television and streaming.
We’ve been framing a lot of our conversation around streaming. I’m interested in what is happening with traditional television and cable. Your – one of your colleagues actually wrote that traditional television is on viewership life support, and movie studios are now banking on franchises and remakes. We see this because of poor ticket sales for dramas and comedies. What is the reality for writers who work for TV, some of those like NBC, ABC, CBS?
KOBLIN: I mean, what’s kind of ironic is the Writers Guild has said that in the network TV model, if you are still working on a network show, you – as a writer, you’re doing a little bit better than if you’re working on a streaming show. On the flipside, network TV is not doing well. It’s not doing well at all. Streaming and everything that happened in the pandemic, when our viewing habits really changed – when we were stuck at home, we needed more stuff to watch. Suddenly, that’s when we were signing up for multiple streaming services in droves. It has really driven down the viewership for broadcast television and cable television. And these networks are a shell of what they once were. It’s gotten to the point where NBC executives are actively considering giving up their 10 p.m. hour, their 10 p.m. primetime hour, and handing it back over to the affiliates within the next couple of years. NBC, 10 p.m…
MOSLEY: Oh, wow – for news. Yeah.
KOBLIN: Yeah. Like, NBC, 10 p.m. – that was, like, where we watched “E.R.” Like, that’s where we watched “Law And Order” at times. Like, that used to be one of the plummest (ph) time slots you could find in American entertainment, and it’s just – it’s a shell of what it used to be. And the cable networks – it’s the same thing. Ratings are just down significantly. And as a result, advertising dollars are down significantly. It was just a few years ago that there were cable networks like a USA or AT&T which were making ambitious, original scripted programs. They’re not really doing that anymore because there aren’t enough viewers to justify the costs.
MOSLEY: Is there space for innovation? You’ve written how the last strike in 2007 brought about the growth of unscripted shows – basically reality TV. And reality TV is still very popular, but we’ve also become accustomed to really great scripted shows like “Succession.” What is your read on how much value viewers actually hold for quality writing, and is there space for something else to pop up?
KOBLIN: It’s possible. I mean, we will see more reality series whether we like it or not or whether we watch them or not because the studios are going to have to fill them all with something, especially with a prolonged strike. It’s funny. ABC released its fall schedule just last week, anticipating that it is going to disrupt scripted television, and the entire lineup is nothing but reality shows and unscripted television. So that means “Celebrity Jeopardy!.” That means “The $100,000 Pyramid.” That means shows like “Shark Tank.” There’s even a show called The “Golden Bachelor,” which is a spin-off of “The Bachelor.” So if in “Bachelor,” were used to a hunky 20- or 30-something being at the center of it, this will feature – we don’t know the age yet, but it will be a hunky 50-, 60- or 70-year-old.
KOBLIN: But this is where – this is the direction the networks are going in because they have to fill them all. And in previous strikes, sort of surprising things have come about. In the 1988 writers strike, which was the longest strike ever – it lasted five months and 153 days – that’s when the Fox network programmed “Cops.” And in the 2007 strike, NBC, trying to figure out more unscripted television – they had “The Apprentice” on the air, but they wanted to figure out a way to sort of juice it. So that’s when they came up with “The Celebrity Apprentice,” starring Donald Trump.
MOSLEY: Let’s take a short break. If you’re just joining us, we’re talking about the writers strike in Hollywood with New York Times media writer John Koblin. The Writers Guild of America has been on strike for more than three weeks in a stalemate with television, film and streaming studios over pay and job security, which they argue has not kept up with the tremendous growth of streaming services. This is FRESH AIR.
(SOUNDBITE OF JOHN CALE AND BRIAN ENO SONG, “SPINNING AWAY”)
MOSLEY: This is FRESH AIR. I’m Tonya Mosley. And if you’re just joining us, I’m talking with New York Times media writer John Koblin, who has been covering the Writers Guild of America Strike in Hollywood. John is the co-author of “It’s Not TV: The Spectacular Rise, Revolution, And Future of HBO.”
John, this time around, the WGA is also asking for something else that we haven’t seen in years past, and that is the regulation around AI, artificial intelligence. They’re worried about a future where AI takes the place of a writer. How likely is that at this moment?
KOBLIN: If you ask the writers, they would say, very likely (laughter). I mean, if you just went back six or seven months ago and you were polling WGA members, I don’t even know if AI would have been, like, one of these top priorities. This wasn’t really an animating issue for them, certainly a year ago, in the same way that it wasn’t really an animating issue for any of us a year ago. But then, I think we all saw what ChatGPT looked like a number of months ago. And we said, oh, what is this artificial intelligence thing? And suddenly, just as the negotiations were just about to begin – and they began in March – this suddenly took on a much greater urgency. And writers, as they were talking to WGA leaders, it was coming up a lot in conversation, like, what are we doing about AI? So the biggest issue by far in this dispute is compensation. That is No. 1, the most important thing in the world. But artificial intelligence is a big issue for them.
MOSLEY: What is interesting is that it’s just come up a few months ago, but the Alliance of Motion Picture and Television Producers, they won’t really talk about it. They’re saying, at this time, they can’t offer a guarantee that AI won’t be used. But they’ll suggest an annual meeting on the advances of the technology. One writer actually pointed out that that was the same response that the union wanted to talk about, the impacts of the internet, back in 2007. Is this a kicking of the can for the industry? Or is it an indication that studios might be considering AI as a creative tool?
KOBLIN: That was the writers’ interpretation of the discussion. The studios came back and said publicly, look; we have effectively said that we are going to regard writers – if you are a human being, you’re a writer. And if you’re a writer, you’re a human being. They didn’t say that in the negotiation room, according to the writers. But the studios have said, yes, of course we understand. But here’s what the writers don’t want to happen. Here’s what they see as the nightmare scenario. You know, we’ve been talking about how there’s been this long-simmering tension between the studios and the writers.
And one writer I talked to could envision a scenario where if, for years – if you think of sort of this, like, cliche of, like, a studio executive’s office where he is dressing down a writer and saying something to the effect of, if I could write this myself, I would – why do I need you? The writers’ sort of, like, nightmarish, morbid fantasy is a studio executive saying, I don’t need you. I’m going to put this into whatever the latest version of ChatGPT is. I’m going to have AI rewrite these three pages. So to them, that is unacceptable. They can’t – they want to put a significant guardrail around what they call literary material. That is, AI cannot generate original content.
Or if you put 20 Nora Ephron scripts into the AI machine, then it spits out a Nora Ephron-like movie, that they don’t want to happen. And the other thing that they are trying to put a guardrail against is source material. That is, if a studio executive says, oh, I had AI generate a 10-page document on Paris in the 19th century. Go ahead and write a movie or TV show based on that. That’s not good. That’s unacceptable to the writers. They will not adapt what – something that AI generated the way they would adapt a book or a magazine article and make that into a show.
MOSLEY: Understood. But there’s still just so much we don’t know about the abilities of AI. It still seems, even with the scenario that you laid out, that it’d be hard to put in direct language that could protect writers.
KOBLIN: Yeah. I mean, one thing that’s actually interesting is, though the writers are trying to put in these guardrails, they have also sort of said that writers themselves can use AI. That is, if I need it as a prompt to, you know, sort of break a logjam, break my writer’s block, or I can’t stand staring at that blinking cursor on my computer screen, maybe AI can help me out a little bit. We don’t know where it’s going to go. But the writers are really worried that there could be a moment a few years from now, if this is not addressed in this negotiation – that is, whenever these negotiations continue again – that that is going to spell trouble for them long term, and that there is no doubt that the studios will try to implement it in some way.
MOSLEY: Yeah. I mean, the scenario that you gave about a writer actually help – using, say, ChatGPT in order to get something on the page, we’ve heard some other creatives – in music, for example – say that AI could be used as a tool to enhance the work versus replacing humans, that that may not be a bad thing because we use source material from other places – like you said, a book in adapting a book to turn it into a movie. These are the conversations that WGA wants to have with the industry, with industry executives. But why do you think it’s breaking down so much, that really, essentially, neither side wants to come together to even have those types of talks to come to some sort of agreement? It’s essentially broken down across the board.
KOBLIN: Yeah. I don’t even know how much of a negotiation they’ve had over artificial intelligence because they’re so far apart on every issue. If you talk to the studios, they’ll say that the negotiations, which began in mid-March, didn’t really begin in earnest until mid-April because at that point – again, this is what the studios say – the WGA folks in the room were really just giving presentations. And they weren’t really doing much back-and-forth or doing much talking. And then they left the room to go get a strike authorization vote from their members, which, by the way, they did in overwhelming fashion. Ninety-eight percent of the writers said, OK, yes to a strike. So those negotiations, if you talk to the studios, really just took place over the course of two, three weeks. And clearly, it didn’t get very far.
So the writers went on strike on May 2, so 3 1/2 weeks ago, and they haven’t talked since. But one of the reasons why they haven’t talked is because the studios are currently in negotiations with two other unions. They’re currently in talks with the Directors Guild, and within a number of weeks, they’re going to be in negotiations with the Actors Guild. Both of their contracts are due at the end of June. So many in Hollywood believe the writers and the studios are not going to get together again until July at the earliest.
MOSLEY: What could potentially happen if SAG-AFTRA – that’s who you’re talking about – if SAG-AFTRA decides to strike, if the Directors Guild talks break down and they decide to strike? That sounds pretty catastrophic.
KOBLIN: Yeah, it would be Hollywood Armageddon because right now we still have some productions that are online, shows or movies where the scripts are done and filming can continue. We’ve got our scripts. Ideally, we would like to make some tweaks, and we would like to have a writer on set while we are filming. But we no longer live in a best-case scenario world because the writers are on strike, so we’ll live with this. But if the directors and the actors went on strike, that’s it. There are no productions happening in the U.S. anywhere. So that would be a total nightmare. On the flipside, if the directors and the actors make a deal with the studios, that could potentially undercut the writers’ position.
One thing that the writers have really benefited from in these first 3 1/2 weeks and one of the reasons why the picket lines in LA and New York have been so energetic – there has been this, like, cross-union solidarity in a way that everybody I’ve talked to on the writers’ side said they haven’t seen before. In 2007, when the writers went on strike, it only took a week or two before a union that represents crew members said that this is a destructive move. We’ve seen the opposite happen this time. We’ve seen actors on the picket lines with writers. We have seen the writers set up picket lines outside productions, and there are crew members who refuse to cross the picket line. And as a result, more productions where all the scripts are done have been forced to shut down because crew members or even actors won’t cross a picket line.
MOSLEY: What is the argument, though, for everyday people to care about this beyond how it might impact their ability to watch their favorite shows?
KOBLIN: I mean, it’s interesting. On the one hand, it’s – we’re talking about sort of the solidarity that the WGA is enjoying from the other unions. We do have an ascendant labor movement in this country, and the WGA is one of the most powerful unions in Hollywood. And the fact that they’ve experienced as much goodwill as they have – that’s interesting. And that is a departure from 2007. But it’s also sort of the future of how we consume content beyond, hey; I don’t have a new show, you say to yourself in the month of December or in the month of January.
It really is about this huge shift that we have seen, this technological shift that we have seen in entertainment where – I mean, again, it was just 15, 20 years ago that we still did appointment television. We don’t do that anymore. So this struggle is about how the Hollywood model has changed and been sort of influenced by Silicon Valley. It does touch on sort of larger flashpoints in the American conversation right now. There is a reason why the writers are calling this an existential moment. It really is reflective of huge technological shifts that we have seen in recent years.
MOSLEY: John Koblin, thank you so much.
KOBLIN: Thank you.
MOSLEY: John Koblin is a media writer for The New York Times. He’s been writing about the writers strike in Hollywood and its impact on the movie, television and streaming industry. If you’d like to catch up on FRESH AIR interviews you missed, like this week’s interview with comedian Wanda Sykes, who has a new Netflix special, actor Julia Louis-Dreyfus or celebrity chef Lidia Bastianich, check out our podcast. You’ll find lots of FRESH AIR interviews. And for a peek behind the scenes at FRESH AIR, subscribe to our newsletter. You’ll find bonus material about the interview, staff recommendations and highlights from the archives. You can subscribe at whyy.org/freshair.
FRESH AIR’s executive producer is Danny Miller. Our technical director and engineer is Audrey Bentham. Our interviews and reviews are produced and edited by Amy Salit, Phyllis Myers, Roberta Shorrock, Sam Briger, Lauren Krenzel, Heidi Saman, Ann Marie Baldonado, Therese Madden, Seth Kelley and Susan Nyakundi. Our digital media producer is Molly Seavy-Nesper. Thea Chaloner directed today’s show. For Terry Gross, I’m Tonya Mosley.
(SOUNDBITE OF ALFREDO LAVIANO AND DANIELE DI BONAVENTURA’S “COSI LONTANO…COSI VICINO”)
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