On Tuesday, May 2, 2023, at midnight ET, the Writers Guild of America East and West walked off the job after failing to get production studios to agree to crucial points in a new contract. Most of those issues revolve around streaming, bringing the current system into line with today’s technology, reflecting how people consume television and movies, and forward-looking policies to create a framework for emerging technologies. For those curious about the issues at play, we have a bullet point rundown below, but the real question for Anglophiles is how it will affect our beloved British shows.
The Writers Guild of Great Britain has been unequivocal in its support for the WGA strike, “We are advising our members not to work on projects in the jurisdiction of the WGA for the duration of the strike following a motion of solidarity passed by our lay governing body.” The press release also reminded members that they would be removed from the U.S. Guild if they took on work within a WGA jurisdiction during the strike. “We continue to show our solidarity with our sister union and their members in the US as they embark on industrial action to secure fair pay, decent working conditions and to gain their rightful share in the future financial successes of their work,” said WGGB Chair Lisa Holdsworth.
In the short term, that means many “British-ish” shows produced via American companies, like Lord of the Rings: The Rings of Power on Amazon, Bridgerton on Netflix, and House of the Dragon on HBO and Max, are in pencils-down mode. Most of these series rushed to finish scripts before the strike to continue filming, but it does mean on-the-fly edits will not occur, and no writers will be on set to fix stuff that’s not working. That may not sound like a big issue, but as anyone who has watched Quantum of Solace can attest, not having a writer on set can hurt the process.
The strike also means that writers who worked on shows coming out in the following weeks and months cannot promote their series. Neil Gaiman's Good Omens 2 is a prime example of this issue; the series is slated to come out this summer, but if the strike is ongoing, Gaiman will not be part of the publicity tour. Moreover, the WGGB announcement has made it clear that British writers not covered by the WGA contract going to write for American companies will not be tolerated.
However, those shows entirely contracted by the WGGB union -- Doctor Who, for example -- are free to continue working, as their contract with the production studios has not expired. (Doctor Who is, in fact, continuing filming.) Many PBS imports on Masterpiece and Walter Presents, which already come on a delay after airing in the U.K., will not be affected, at least in the short term. Some are joining the strike in solidarity; Jack Thorne, for instance, is not a WGA member, but his Enola Holmes films are a Netflix project, and the BBC is shopping his Lord of the Flies series to American producers. He has announced he is going pencil down, standing with his WGA brethren.
However, much of this may change come June 30, 2023, and current estimates assume the WGA strike will last, at minimum, until then. That's when two more contracts expire: the Screen Actors Guild and the Director's Guild of America. While it is unknown whether SAG-AFTRA or the DGA will stand with the WGA when the time comes, SAG-AFTRA is encouraging members to join the current picket line in solidarity. And there is a good chance they may, due to the issues at play, and the floating spectre of a "mega-strike" has everyone on edge.
I'm incredibly proud of how transparent our union is. In the @WGAWest's strike announcement, we included a list of our proposals, and the AMPTP's responses. Read it for yourself: it explains in black and white we're forced to go on strike. pic.twitter.com/U2FLsv9Dob— Adam Conover (@adamconover) May 2, 2023
So what are those issues? It's not an easy thing to break down, but suffice it to say, the easiest way to understand it boils down to the following:
- Mini rooms: Unlike British series, which usually have one writer per scripted episode, American productions have "writers' rooms" where 6-8 writers collaborate on scripts. However, with so many streamers and TV series being produced in hopes of being picked up by them, the practice of "Mini-Rooms" has taken hold, half-sized writers' rooms of 2-3 writers doing the work of a full room. Since these shows aren't "picked up," they pay less and give no production experience. The WGA wants to create rules to stop this practice.
- Streaming Residuals: Ironically, this issue caused the 07-08 writers' strike. At the time, the idea of watching tv on a computer wasn't considered something that was going to be worth all that much, and the settlement favored DVDs and Broadcast. (LOL, etc.) As a result, streaming residuals on hit shows that should give a writer the ability to make a living wage is just way off from the reality of how entertainment works now, much of it treated as a flat fee. Moreover, the sudden practice of removing shows from streaming services with no warning -- and no way for the show's creators to retrieve the rights work and offer it up elsewhere -- has left many with zero income for their work and no way to ameliorate it.
- Transparency: When a show is popular, it makes money, and, therefore, so should those working on it. Everything stems from this, from pay raises to those aforementioned residuals. But how can writers know any of this if they don't know how much their work is viewed? Streaming services are incredibly guilty of this, playing up how many "viewership hours" in the press without revealing the actual number of viewers behind that. (Some even go as part to use percentages without a baseline. It's great that this show was watched by 50% more viewers than any show before. But if that baseline was eight viewers, that's just an uber fancy way of saying 12 whole people watched.) This has become more necessary as streaming services suddenly cancel shows, declaring no one is watching and they made no money. The WGA demands that streaming services admit how many viewers their shows have so that they can be compensated accordingly.
And that's before Artificial Intelligence writing generators (mostly known as "chatbots") entered the discussion in the last 18 months. Production studios refuse to consider the future, much like streaming was written off in 2007. The WGA wants forward-thinking rules about this stuff, as production studios treat this like it's unimportant.
The transparency issue is driving the idea of a mega-strike because directors and actors are also profoundly affected by having no idea how their show is doing. It's also one that affects overseas shows. Currently, the EU and the U.K. are trying to legislate streaming services into transparency, as government-funded broadcast services like the BBC cannot compete with a target that won't even admit how many people watch their programs.
However, like with the WGA, services like Netflix, Amazon, and Apple TV+ are highly resistant to admitting how many people watch their programs. They prefer to let a strike happen rather than make a deal showing everyone their actual numbers. How big a strike are they willing to face before an agreement can be reached, and how long will it continue before someone gives in.
Until then, we'll monitor this situation as it develops.