Hollywood writers go on strike: Here is what to know

The Writers Guild of America says it supports a work stoppage after failing to reach an agreement for higher pay.

Striking writers walk the picket line outside Paramount Studios in Los Angeles on December 13, 2007
The writers argue that streaming services have negatively affected them, saying they are working more for less money [File: AP Photo]

More than 11,000 members of the Writers Guild of America (WGA) are on strike, throwing Hollywood into turmoil as the entertainment business grapples with seismic changes triggered by the global streaming boom.

Here is what to know about the strike:

Why are writers striking?

The writers argue that streaming has negatively affected them, saying they are working more for less money.

They are seeking better compensation for their work on film, television and streaming shows, as well as residual payments that reward writers when a show becomes a hit.

The WGA called its first work stoppage in 15 years after failing to reach an agreement for higher pay from studios such as Walt Disney and Netflix. The union represents roughly 11,500 writers in New York, Los Angeles and elsewhere.

Picketing will begin on Tuesday afternoon, according to the WGA West.

What do the studios say?

The Alliance of Motion Picture and Television Producers, the trade group negotiating the union contract on behalf of the leading studios and producers, says it is seeking a fair and equitable contract.

On Monday, it said it offered “generous increases in compensation” to the writers, but the two sides could not reach a deal.

Media companies also are facing a tough economic situation, as conglomerates are under pressure from Wall Street to make their streaming services profitable after investing billions of dollars in programming to attract subscribers.

The rise of streaming has led to declining television advertisement revenue as traditional TV audiences shrink and advertisers go elsewhere. On top of that, the threat of a recession in the world’s largest economy also looms.

What are the sticking points?

Producers were prepared to increase offers of higher pay and residuals, the alliance said, but were “unwilling to do so because of the magnitude of other proposals still on the table that the Guild continues to insist upon”.

The primary sticking points, it said, were proposals that “would require a company to staff a show with a certain number of writers for a specified period of time, whether needed or not”.

The WGA, however, argued that the studios’ responses to its proposals “have been wholly insufficient, given the existential crisis writers are facing”.

Writers say they have suffered financially during the streaming boom, in part because of shorter seasons and smaller residual payments.

Half of all television series writers now work at minimum salary levels, compared with one-third in the 2013-14 season, according to WGA statistics. The median pay for scribes at the higher writer/producer level has fallen 4 percent over the last decade.

The last WGA strike, in 2007 and 2008, cost the California economy an estimated $2.1bn as productions shut down and out-of-work writers, actors and producers cut back spending.

How is AI a factor?

With the emergence of artificial intelligence (AI) software, the WGA wants safeguards to prevent studios from using AI to generate new scripts from writers’ previous work.

Writers also want to ensure they are not asked to rewrite draft scripts created by AI.

Which shows will feel the strike’s effect?

Late-night talk shows such as Jimmy Kimmel Live and The Tonight Show with Jimmy Fallon are expected to go dark immediately and air reruns.

That means new installments will not be available on traditional networks, or on streaming services such as Hulu and Peacock that make the shows available the following day.

“Because of the way that the writers for comedy shows have to write very quickly on current events right before a strike, then of course the late night TV hosts will be affected first,” said Catherine Creighton, director of the Buffalo Co-Lab programme at Cornell University’s School of Industrial and Labour Relations.

Creighton told Al Jazeera that writers are “critical” to the TV industry and could cripple it by withholding their labour.

Next to be disrupted could be daytime soap operas since they are traditionally written not long before they are filmed.

Primetime comedies and dramas currently on air should be able to wrap up seasons uninterrupted – their episodes for the coming weeks will have already been written and filmed.

What could happen if the strike drags on?

A protracted strike could delay the start of the fall TV season. Writing for fall shows normally starts in May or June.

If the work stoppage becomes protracted, the networks will increasingly fill their programming lineups with unscripted reality shows, news magazines and reruns.

What about streaming services?

Netflix has said it can feed its service with shows produced outside the United States. But its US-based series would be affected if a strike drags on.

HBO Max, which is switching its name to Max in late May, has been saving up programming to release with its rebranding.

Which shows are safe?

News programmes will continue as normal because their writers are covered by a different union.

The same is true for unscripted reality shows such as Big Brother and The Bachelor.

This combination of images shows promotional art for "White House Plumbers," a series premiering May 1 on HBO Max, left, "Jewish Matchmaking," a series premiering May 3 on Netflix, center, and "Bupkis," premiering May 4 on Peacock
This combination of images shows promotional art for White House Plumbers, a series that premiered on May 1 on HBO Max, left, Jewish Matchmaking, a series premiering on May 3 on Netflix, centre, and Bupkis, premiering on May 4 on Peacock [HBO Max/Netflix/Peacock/AP]

What about movies?

The flow of films to theatres will not take an immediate hit because movies take two to three years to produce, and studios have a pipeline of films already written and shot.

It would take an extended strike to interrupt movie release schedules.

Source: Al Jazeera and news agencies