In 2021, comedy writer Eliza Skinner won a Daytime Emmy for the lines she crafted for Aubrey Plaza at the Independent Spirit Awards. Seductive job opportunities did not follow. Like many other TV writers, Skinner struggled to find work during the pandemic.
Fortunately, periodically throughout the coming months, she’d find a green envelope in her mailbox containing a check. They were cuts from the reuse of The Late Late Show With James Corden episodes she’d written jokes for between 2015 and 2017. Some checks were in the thousands. Some barely bought her breakfast tacos. Still, they added up to enough, throughout 2021, to cover rent for her one-bedroom Hollywood apartment and feed her cat and dog without going too far into her savings, she told me over the phone on Tuesday night.
Sometimes it struck her as odd that she was still relying heavily on money from a pre-Trump-era job. She’d held higher-level roles since then. But though she’d been head writer on Earth to Ned—the year it made several lists of the funniest shows, no less—The Late Late Show remained her way to grasp financial stability. There was an obvious reason for that: It aired on CBS, which, like most networks, pays writers for TV reruns and international syndication. Earth to Ned streams via Disney+. Streaming shows rarely offer significant “residuals,” as they are called, no matter how many times people continue to watch them.
“It’s exactly the same type of show—if not more complicated—because it involves puppets,” she told me. “It should have gotten the same kind of residuals.”
Residuals are the one of the main issues that the Writers Guild of America, which represents thousands of TV and film writers, and the Alliance of Motion Picture and Television Producers, which represents major motion picture studios, TV networks, and streaming services like Netflix, are now battling over. On Tuesday, as you probably know by now, the WGA went on strike. Hundreds of screenwriters picketed outside studios throughout Los Angeles, carrying signs with slogans like “Nice Tesla! You’re Welcome.”
Like all labor disputes, there are many facets to the writers’ strike. But at their core, the WGA’s demands center around one primary frustration: As writers’ work has enabled the creation of a multibillion-dollar streaming ecosystem, it has ironically gotten harder to build a secure career as a writer. Writers want a larger share of profits, and more stability.
Representatives for the studios say they are willing to boost compensation and even adjust some of the streaming residual models. But thus far they have been unwilling to budge on several key issues, including offering performance-based residuals—basically paying based on how often the thing a writer has made is watched. The reason for this is simple: Giving people viewer-based rewards would require transparency about numbers. The studios don’t want anyone—including writers—to know how many people watch their shows. Jonathan Handel, an entertainment lawyer and longtime chronicler of writer-studio disputes for Puck and other publications, told me that he believes it comes down to this: “They don’t want a true picture to emerge of how profitable these series are. Then labor will want a piece.”
The last time screenwriters went on strike, being a Netflix member still primarily meant receiving DVDs through the U.S. Postal Service. The year was 2007. Though most of us were still using flip phones and Hulu was yet to launch, writers had the foresight to see that the internet was going to revolutionize entertainment and to demand that streaming content would be bound, from there on out, by a union agreement just like content that played in movie theaters and on cable TV.
“2007 was when we won jurisdiction over the internet,” said Adam Conover, a comedian, writer, showrunner, and member of the 2023 WGA Negotiating Committee. (It’s worth noting that Slate staff writers are in the WGA East union, but we play no role in this TV- and film-focused labor dispute.) He argued that if it weren’t for the strike, then every streaming show that followed, from House of Cards to The Mandalorian, could have gotten away with paying writers whatever struck their fancy. (Conover made headlines on Wednesday, shortly after we spoke, for attacking CNN’s owner for his $250 million salary while appearing on CNN. That’s not so far off from the $429 million or so increase that the 10,000 or so TV and screenwriters are asking studios—including CNN’s parent company, Warner Bros. Discovery—to collectively pay them, he pointed out.)
The challenge for writers is that in the decade and a half since then, the internet changed not only where content lives, but also how it gets made. Netflix disrupted the entertainment industry, first by making movies and TV shows available with a couple of clicks and then by using customer data to guide generation of more bingeable delights. Traditional studios and tech companies followed suit. Untethered from traditional TV programming schedules, studios could order up shorter seasons. On the positive side, this model facilitated experimentation and meant that more shows got made. On the negative side, landing a role on these six- or eight-episode shows offered only a fraction of the career security that being hired on to a traditional 22-episode network show promised. And it wasn’t just that the seasons were shorter. Studios began embracing new models for preproduction development that made writers feel more like gig workers. For this reason, the union is now pushing for a number of requirements around how long writers must be employed for, something the studios are vehemently against.
This past July was the first time TV watchers consumed more on streaming platforms like Netflix, YouTube, Hulu, and Disney+ than they did on cable TV, according to Nielsen. But for many writers this was nothing to celebrate. Over the past decade, the median weekly pay for all writer-producers has declined 4 percent, which adds up to a 23 percent decline when you incorporate inflation, according to union materials. If you’re, say, a journalist looking through the WGA annual report, salaries may still seem tantalizingly high. The average earnings among the 6,000 WGA writers who shared that data in 2021 was $260,006. But you have to factor in that the data is skewed by big-name showrunners who pull in millions. And screenwriting was supposed to be the one way a writer actually had a decent shot at surgeon-level riches. Or, as Conover put it, it was supposed to pay more than “writing novels or stories for the New Yorker.” Instead, the New Yorker and Vanity Fair now featured anecdotes from TV writers for The Bear and The Handmaid’s Tale who were stuck living without heat and were driving a Lyft as a second job. Breaking in was always hard, but it’s early and mid-career writers who are really struggling, several writers told me.
In a statement on Wednesday, the Alliance of Motion Picture and Television Producers said that studios had “presented a comprehensive package proposal to the Guild last night which included generous increases in compensation for writers as well as improvements in streaming residuals,” but that it was unwilling to cede ground on several items including “mandatory staffing.” It’s hard to sympathize with the studios on many of their positions. Rather than create rules about artificial intelligence, they want to meet annually to discuss the technology, according to the guild’s negotiation documents. They are also against offering writers of hits any kind of eyeball-connected residuals. That said, should studios really have to require six to eight writers on every TV production given that some of the best shows on television have been written by a single person? Even a former WGA leader has been critical of this guild demand, calling it “featherbedding.”
What is undeniable is that this strike comes during a moment of reckoning about the streaming economy. In 2021, when Netflix subscriber growth significantly slowed down, Wall Street freaked out. Key players finally reconsidered that “the naïve/lunatic idea that as long as you’re growing subscriptions, a viable business plan would reveal itself,” as Joe Keohane, a magazine writer and novelist, wrote in an Twitter thread on Wednesday. Still, don’t feel too sorry for Netflix. The company reported more than $8 billion in revenue last quarter.
One upside of this new, messy production model, though? No matter how long the strike goes, we’ll have plenty to stream.