On March 13, the Writers Guild of America will begin negotiations with the Alliance of Motion Picture and Television Producers for a new three-year contract, and some early reports indicate the union is prepared to strike if its demands are not met.
It would be the first WGA strike in nearly a decade; the last one was the 100-day walkout that crippled the 2007-08 television season — a period of calamity that forced major networks to reduce their episode orders, prompted some late-night shows to air without a writing staff, and fueled the rise of reality TV.
WGA declined to comment on its negotiations, but veteran entertainment lawyer Mark Litwak cautions that things are still in the “posturing” stage until negotiations actually begin. “WGA is saying, ‘We’re gonna strike if we don’t get what we want,'” Litwak says.
Strike or not, the television industry has changed dramatically in the past 10 years. The influx of capital spent on prestige shows, and the rise of streaming services amid the collapse of the home video market, means the WGA is playing a different game these days.
So what’s at stake for writers in the age of Peak TV? Here’s what to watch out for when negotiations start:
1. The New World of New Media
It sounds almost quaint: In 2007, a big sticking point of the negotiations revolved around writers seeking a larger cut of DVD residuals.
“The industry is changing,” Litwak says. “And one of the changes is that, at least for the studios, home video [sales] have been going down and VOD in all its forms has been increasing.”
Under the WGA’s current “new media” terms, writers for streaming video (SVOD) platforms are paid on a two-tiered system. “Low-budget” content, meaning short-form programming for mobile phones and sites like YouTube, commands a lower rate for its writers, while “high-budget” SVOD (Netflix, Hulu, and Amazon) pays out at similar rates to traditional TV. The size of a VOD program’s budget can also determine how the WGA classifies it, according to Litwak.
The WGA cut a favorable deal to “new media” in the past because the market was still, well, new. Its most recent contract, in 2014, allowed writers to collect residuals corresponding to the length of time their work is made available on streaming platforms, following a set “streaming window.” Now, of course, Netflix is a global powerhouse, and its competitors are spending lavishly to keep up. “My guess is they’re going to want to restrict the breaks they’re giving to new media,” Litwak says.
2. Shorter Seasons, Bigger Paychecks?
Television writers are facing a new fact of production: The 22-episode season order has become increasingly rare. Studios greenlight shorter and fewer seasons, with 10- or 13-episode series orders becoming the norm.
Fewer episodes and seasons means fewer opportunities for lucrative syndication packages, which typically arrive at the 100-episode mark. But the syndication game itself is in jeopardy, as rerun ratings decline in the face of streaming sites that host the entire series of most shows.
Last week, Variety reported a WGA member survey that identified reduced episode orders as a top concern. One proposal had writers earning a higher rate for shows that greenlight fewer than 22 episodes per season, though this seems unlikely to pass muster with the studios.
3. Movies in Decline
Big studios are making fewer movies every year. Since the last writers’ strike, according to Deadline, the number of films rated by the MPAA has decreased steadily: from 897 in 2008 to 613 in 2015. That means although teleplay writers garner the headlines, screenwriters are feeling the biggest pinch. Since the WGA can’t demand that studios order more scripts, it must instead push for higher per-script rates for its members. Litwak believes an increase in “minimums” — the minimum compensation for a script — will be one of the guild’s highest priorities.
4. Staying Alive
Like most worker unions, a big bargaining chunk is worker benefits. Since revenue from the WGA is sagging, it needs a significant outside contribution to maintain its current pension and health plans. Currently, the WGA fronts the money for its members’ health insurance premiums, but according to the guild, that health fund has been running a deficit for the last four years. Look for a request to shift some of that burden to the studios in the weeks ahead.
5. What if They Striked and No One Noticed?
This might be the scariest scenario of all. Would a last-resort writers strike even have the same crippling effect in 2017 that it did in 2007?
Broadcast networks, which have already reduced pilot-season spending significantly this year, would certainly feel the burn: They’re facing upfronts in May, and need to show advertisers they can keep the content coming. Hulu, which enjoys a mix of ad and subscription revenue, has stake in upfronts as well.
But Netflix and Amazon, the ad-free streaming outlets that the WGA really needs to attract attention, are already oversaturating their subscribers with original programming. And, unlike the networks, they aren’t beholden to a set schedule. They can likely afford to scale back or space out their original releases for a short time without significantly harming subscription revenue.
That said, the streaming giants are all still union shops, and their market position depends on maintaining the quality and quantity of their selections. But Netflix was planning on releasing 1,000 hours of original content in 2017, a 400-hour increase over 2016. With a scale like that, what’s a few hundred hours’ difference?
Elsewhere, some studios have already demonstrated that viewers don’t mind waiting for popular series to return. Comedy Central’s “Broad City” took an extended hiatus before its upcoming fourth season, and HBO’s “Westworld” is doing likewise after only its first.
With TV no longer beholden to the classic timetables, can the WGA still drum up the leverage it would need to make its negotiations truly effective? We will find out when the posturing is out of the way and negotiations begin next week.