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Hollywood writers go on strike over fair pay in streaming era

Hollywood writers' strike begins
Late night talk shows go dark as writers' strike begins 01:42

More than 11,000 television and film writers have gone on strike for the first time in 15 years following the breakdown of negotiations between the Writers Guild of America and Hollywood studios, the guild says. The walkout began at 12:01 a.m. Pacific Daylight Time, when the contract that was in force ran out.

The union had been negotiating with Discovery-Warner, NBC Universal, Paramount, Sony, Netflix, Amazon, Apple and Disney,  all represented under the umbrella of the Alliance of Motion Picture and Television Producers (AMPTP).

The labor dispute could have a cascading effect on TV and film productions depending on how long the strike persists. But a shutdown has been widely forecast for months due to the scope of the discord. The writers voted overwhelmingly last month to authorize a strike, with 98% of membership supporting it.

Writers' walkouts have often been lengthy. In 1988, a WGA strike lasted 153 days. The last WGA strike went for 100 days, beginning in 2007 and ending in 2008.

The most immediate effect of the strike that viewers are likely to notice will be on late-night shows and "Saturday Night Live." All are expected to immediately go dark. Deadline reports that "The Late Show with Stephen Colbert," "Jimmy Kimmel Live!" and "The Tonight Show Starring Jimmy Fallon" are stopping production beginning on Tuesday.

During the 2007 strike, late-night hosts eventually returned to the air and improvised material. Jay Leno wrote his own monologues, a move that angered union leadership.

Colbert taped his show Monday while talks were continuing, but expressed support for the union. After showing a composite picture of all the show's writers, he said, "They're so important to our show. ... Everybody including myself hopes both sides reach a deal. But I also think that the writers' demands are not unreasonable. I'm a member of the guild. I support collective bargaining. This nation owes so much to unions." He added, "Just in case there is a strike, and we have to go off the air," before going into a comedy routine about news events that could happen.

The guild announced the sites where picketing would begin Tuesday. 

The board of directors for the WGA, which includes both a West and an East branch, voted unanimously to call for a strike. Writers, they said, are facing an "existential crisis."

"Though we negotiated intent on making a fair deal — and though your strike vote gave us the leverage to make some gains — the studios' responses to our proposals have been wholly insufficient, given the existential crisis writers are facing," the guild wrote to its members. "The companies' behavior has created a gig economy inside a union workforce, and their immovable stance in this negotiation has betrayed a commitment to further devaluing the profession of writing.

"From their refusal to guarantee any level of weekly employment in episodic television, to the creation of a 'day rate' in comedy variety, to their stonewalling on free work for screenwriters and on AI for all writers, they have closed the door on their labor force and opened the door to writing as an entirely freelance profession. No such deal could ever be contemplated by this membership." 

Among the issues for the WGA are the changes in compensation that streaming has ushered in. With fewer episodes, lower pay and less opportunity for residuals, the guild was demanding higher initial pay for writers and the establishment of a metric to reward writers with higher residuals for streaming shows with higher viewership. 

While the AMPTP offered base pay increases that were lower than what the WGA had asked for, the guild said the alliance refused its demand for viewership-based streaming residuals outright.

The WGA was also asking for mandatory minimum staffing requiring for episodic television and demanding a guaranteed number of consecutive weeks of work for writers. The AMPTP claimed the staffing and length of employment demands were the "primary sticking points" in the negotiations.

"The AMPTP 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," the alliance said in a statement. "The AMPTP also indicated to the WGA that it is prepared to improve that offer, but was unwilling to do so because of the magnitude of other proposals still on the table that the Guild continues to insist upon."

Streaming has exploded the number of series and films that are made annually, meaning more jobs for writers. But WGA members say they're making much less money and working under more strained conditions. Showrunners on streaming series receive just 46% of the pay that showrunners on broadcast series receive, the WGA claims. Content is booming, but pay is down.

Many of the back-end payments writers have historically profited by —  like syndication and international licensing — have been largely phased out by the onset of streaming. More writers — roughly half — are being paid minimum rates, an increase of 16% over the last decade. The use of so-called mini-writers rooms has soared.

The guild has said more flexibility for writers is needed when they're contracted for series that have tended to be more limited and short-lived than the once-standard 20+ episode broadcast season.

At the same time, studios are under increased pressure from Wall Street to turn a profit with their streaming services. Many studios and production companies, which bargain as the trade association Alliance of Motion Picture and Television Producers, are slashing spending. The Walt Disney Co. is eliminating 7,000 jobs. Warner Bros. Discovery is cutting costs to lessen its debt. Netflix has pumped the breaks on spending growth.

CBS News is owned by Paramount.

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