The Writers Guild of America and the Alliance of Motion Picture and Television Producers announced they will commence contract negotiations on March 13th amid much anxiety in the industry. The entities have seven weeks before their current contract expires in early May. If the writers go on strike, outlets like Netflix and Amazon would likely reduce the production of episodes of television shows, thus impacting the number of roles available for actors.
The WGA leaders maintain that their members haven’t received an increase in their average earnings over the last decade. “The $49 billion annual operating profit accumulated by the six major companies with whom we will be negotiating is double what their profit numbers were only a decade ago,” the WGA leaders wrote to their members last month.
“Contrast that with the economic picture facing the members of our guilds, whose average incomes in both features and series TV have actually decreased over that same decade. You’ve told Guild leadership in meetings and surveys that new models of development, production, and distribution–while making the companies richer–have not worked to your individual or collective advantage,” they continued.
Television writers notice a trend toward shorter episode orders and a seemingly vanishing traditional 22-episode, September-through-May television season on which current writer compensation is based. Indeed, the expansion in original content across basic and pay cable as well as Netflix, Amazon, and Hulu has made 10 to 13 seasonal episodes the new norm. In addition, a rising demand for miniseries and limited series also translates to episode orders ranging from four to 20. As a result, middle- and low-earning writers are seeing their paychecks shrink. While it’s true series production is booming, it’s the top tier that benefits the most along with writers who are lucky enough to gather up two or more shows that have schedules that don’t conflict.
Also, of desperate concern is the state of WGA’s Health Plan. The ballooning inflation in health care costs across the nation has resulted in deficits in three out of the last four years. The guild has needed to tap into reserves to cover the costs. Currently, the WGA members who earn enough to qualify for health insurance don’t pay premiums for their high-quality health coverage. Even some writers admit continuing the present arrangement is unsustainable.
The AMPTP which represents the entertainment industry’s major studios has not yet commented on the WGA’s assertions, and it’s likely the two parties will announce a news blackout on the talks.
It was 2007-08 when the writers last went on strike with a bitter 100-day walk-out. As a result, some shows–especially unscripted or reality shows–benefitted from the strike. The Amazing Race and Big Brother gained an extra season; American Idol as well as unscripted game shows like Are You Smarter Than a 5th Grader? thrived. On the other hand, several soap operas switched to non-union writers. Shows like The Daily Show with Jon Stewart and Saturday Night Live played reruns; however, after a couple of months, Stewart’s show resumed without writers for which time it was briefly renamed A Daily Show with Jon Stewart. Many shows were unable to complete the full season originally ordered. This includes Bones which completed only two of the remaining eight episodes ordered, and Friday Night Lights which stopped making episodes due to the strike. And some shows were simply cancelled during the strike like NBC’s Bionic Woman and ABC’s Cavemen.
Hopefully the guild and the AMPTP negotiators will agree on a new contract amidst all the tension.