From mini rooms to streaming, things have changed since the last big writers strike
The Writers Guild of America is on strike, and a vital part of the entertainment industry could be in for a long work stoppage.
By many accounts, the TV and film industry is overdue for a reckoning, after the pandemic made the 2020 contract bargaining season a dud. That prevented writers and their employers, represented by the Alliance of Motion Picture and Television Producers, from reaching new agreements on emerging technology and business practices.
"Nobody cared if you went on strike in spring of 2020. It just didn't matter, because nobody was working anyway," Kate Fortmueller, an assistant professor of entertainment and media studies at the University of Georgia, told NPR.
The buildup of unresolved issues is just one reason, Fortmueller says, that the 2023 strike could last a while.
"I think this has the potential to be one of the longer strikes," she said. "I think it has the potential to be one of the big ones."
Here's a quick guide to what's different about this strike:
What has changed with streaming?
Writers and production companies are grappling with how to reconcile drastically different ideas of how the media business should handle streaming platforms. It's a new version of their perennial disagreement over residual payments — the money that writers get when their material is reused. And compared to the last big strike, which lasted from 2007 to 2008, new players are involved.
"What's new about this is who's at the table, frankly," Fortmueller said, listing companies such as Amazon, Apple and Netflix.
"We haven't really seen them as part of these negotiations in the past," she added. "So I think that's not necessarily a wild card, but it does change some of the stakes."
As a reference point, Fortmueller cites the lengthy strike between SAG-AFTRA and video game makers that ended in 2017.
Video game companies and streaming companies share key characteristics, she said, noting the tech industry's labor conditions and standards differ from those in Hollywood.
"They're not heavily unionized industries," she added. "So I think they take a harder line in a lot of these regards."
Why are mini rooms a big deal?
The growth of streaming shows is linked to a controversial topic: the shrinking of writers' rooms, into "mini rooms," where there are fewer writers than a traditional room would employ. Where some rooms traditionally employed around seven writers (or more than twice that, for some series), mini rooms get by with a handful of them, on a short-term basis.
"Mini rooms are essentially streamers hiring writers to come in and basically 'break' stories," Fortmueller said.
That means breaking a season down and structuring it — but in this arrangement, writers are paid the union minimum rather than their normal fees, and they're not kept on payroll for long period of time.
"Effectively they're creating shows, albeit shortened-season shows, for a fraction of the price," Fortmueller said. Instead of paying writers more over a longer time, she added, streaming companies are "asking them to do a lot more heavy lifting in a much shorter amount of time."
It's a particularly common tactic, she said, for studios looking to create scripts for a six- or eight-episode season. That's led to claims that writers are being treated as gig workers: Rather than joining a show for what could be a successful and lucrative run, writers in a mini room commonly earn union-guaranteed minimum rates for short assignments.
Production companies say the model helps them vet a show more fully before committing to a full series. But writers say the practice compresses their contributions and cuts their pay.
"I'm doing absolutely all of the work that I would do in a full writers room, and I'm paid a fraction of my normal quote," one writer recently told Indie Wire.
What should viewers expect?
The strike and its disputes raise ethical questions for Fortmueller as a viewer. On one hand, she says, there are so many shows to watch, and only so much time. But she also wants to support full-length shows, and the writers behind them.
"It's probably better for me to invest my time in shows that have better working conditions, that are helping keep people employed," she said. But when people reach decision fatigue, she added, "the lure of the minimal commitment is pretty strong."
The last big strike lasted more than three months, stretching from 2007 into 2008. Back then, people were up in arms over the fate of beloved shows like Grey's Anatomy. In the meantime, they fired up their DVD players to watch early seasons of The Wire and binge shows like Friday Night Lights and My So-Called Life.
Those who kept tuning into TV found expanded reality TV offerings, such as Project Runway and The Biggest Loser, that are defined as unscripted shows. People again flocked to "reality" in 2020, when viewers mentally escaped the pandemic shutdown by watching Tiger King.
"As far as the audience perspective, I'm not sure that the impact is going to be quite as strong in terms of what we're experiencing," Fortmueller said. She notes that spring and summer are often not the strongest seasons for TV — and then there are the streaming platforms that have content in their pipelines, including material from international markets.
But for streaming companies, licensing more content will only help fill gaps, Fortmueller added.
"Long term, they can't necessarily rely on that, because so much of their business model is about attracting new subscribers with new shows. So ultimately, it can only last so long before it starts to hurt them."