Update, April 24, 4:47 p.m.: The votes are in, and members of the Writers Guild of America have voted to authorize a strike, with 96.3 percent voting yes. A total 6,310 ballots were cast, by 67.5 percent of members. That’s a pretty healthy plebiscite. Negotiations are set to resume tomorrow.
There's a lot to be afraid of these days in Southern California, what with this Trump guy as president and North Korea testing nukes and did you hear about how all of our trees dying? Our trees! Crazy. A bunch of writers threatening to go on strike probably shouldn't rate very high on our list of worries, but maybe it should?
The Writers Guild of America's 10-year contract with the Alliance of Motion Picture & Television Producers (people call these guys “the producers,” which can be confusing because they're not actual producers, they're the studios) is set to expire on May 1. The writers are none too pleased with how things are going for them. Despite the era of “peak television,” which is flooding viewers' eyeballs with content and making the studios fabulously wealthy (the six major media companies made a combined $51 billion in profit last year), writers say their take-home pay has actually dropped in the last decade or so.
The studios say it's a very uncertain time right now, what with unbundling and cord cutting and DVR and the internet and all that. They're willing to offer the writers something, but not everything, at least not yet. (Representatives of both the Writers Guild and the Alliance aren't talking to press these days and didn't return our phone calls.)
“Right now, if you are one of the top showrunners, it’s an exceptionally good time,” says entertainment journalist Richard Rushfield, who writes the highly entertaining daily (more or less) email newsletter The Ankler. “If you’re a writer in your mid-30s or 40s looking to get staffed, it's getting harder and harder.”
What should all of this mean to you? Read on …
What do the writers want?
A key area of contention has to do with work rules for television. Right now, writers who are hired for a show are “held exclusively” to that show, even when they're not writing (this is also called being in “first position”). So while the show is being produced, the writer sits around waiting to see if the show is going to get picked up for another season, and that wait can be months or even a year. In that time of limbo, the writer can't take a job on a new show without getting permission. And that other show may be reluctant to hire a writer “in second position” — that is, a writer who may have to go run off to his other show at any moment.
When TV shows made 22 episodes a season, this wasn't as big a deal, because writers get paid per episode and the writing process took up most of the year. Now, more and more shows produce only 12 or 13 episodes a season. And many of those 13-episode-a-season shows take longer to produce than a traditional sitcom. This has led to a weird situation where a high-end writer can actually make less money than a low-level story editor, who gets paid by the week for the duration of production.
The Writers Guild is asking for a relaxation of these exclusivity rules.
There's also the issue of the writers' health care plan — which, according to the guild, is getting pretty darn close to insolvent, thanks to the soaring cost of health care. Making matters worse, Obamacare's “Cadillac tax” provision is scheduled to go into effect in 2020. That'll add a 40 percent tax to any high-cost, employer-provided health care plan, and the writers have a very good health care plan. So the writers want the studios to up their contributions to that.
There's a bunch of other things — the writers want an across-the-board increase in their minimum compensation, more money from residuals, and some other things that you can read about on TV writer Ken Levine's blog.
Will there be a strike?
Maybe! But probably not.
Right now, negotiations between the writers and the studios are on hold, pending a strike authorization vote by the Writers Guild. That authorization is sure to be approved, but its margin of victory and the number of writers who bother to vote are crucial to the guild's bargaining power. The type of turnout L.A. typically gets for, say, a mayoral election is not gonna cut it.
“If the writers don’t give a commanding authorization to strike — a huge turnout — then the producers know that they’re not really prepared to walk out and be out of work,” Rushfield says. “The producers can put a couple of peanuts on the table and they’ll have no choice.”
Rushfield puts the odds of a strike at around 20 percent. Television writer Hayes Davenport puts the odds a bit higher, about 40 percent, but still thinks both sides are likely to avert a major impasse.
“I'm optimistic that a strike won’t happen,” Davenport says. “It seems like there’s been some movement.”
Lots of people expect a resolution sometime next week, after the strike authorization vote but before the contract expires.
“We’re hopeful we come to a resolution,” says Jeremy Zimmer, president of United Talent Agency. “It’s hard to imagine this would be a great time for a strike, for anybody.”
What if there is a strike?
The last strike, in late 2007 and early 2008, lasted three months and, according to a report by the UCLA Anderson School of Management, cost the economy of Los Angeles $380 million (other estimates put the cost between $1 billion and $2 billion).
Writers won't get paid, of course, but other industry employees would be out of work as well, especially if the strike drags on. Studios can shoot films and TV shows that are already written, but eventually those scripts will run out, and when they do, tens of thousands will be out of work.
During the last strike, studios rushed a bevy of movies into production with unpolished or even half-written scripts. This may have led to a glut of crappy movies in 2009, like Transformers: Revenge of the Fallen, X-Men Origins: Wolverine, G.I Joe: The Rise of Cobra and Quantum of Solace. Then again, these movies probably would have sucked anyway.
The real losers in a strike are late-night talk shows, many of which would probably go dark, leaving the networks to air reruns.
Isn't this whole thing just a lot of overprivileged rich people whining?
True, many screenwriters — especially the ones who have seen their wages fall in the last decade — are rich. These are not exactly striking coal miners we're talking about. Then again, the studios are way richer.
“The TV industry is booming right now, making billions, and the writers' earnings have gone down in the last 10 years,” Rushfield says. “The pie is growing, and their slice is getting smaller.”