Multi-millionaire celebrity television creators on picket lines. Ivy league guys with silver curls driving Porsches on juice runs to the Urth Cafe for their fellow union members. The 9,000 members of the Writers Guild of America who say they are about to go on strike are not exactly blue-collar, though a few of them may be wearing light blue cotton tees from James Perse.
It’ a bit of an unfair characterization. Most WGA members are decidedly middle class as it’s defined by the ridiculous cost of living in Los Angeles and New York, where almost all of them work. The men and women who write your television shows and films currently receive about 2% of the total amount spent on production of these programs. As a group, they have overwhelmingly decided to strike in order to get more of the pie. When producers and actors are making so much more money than the scribes, they may have a decent argument. And their current contract does cut them pretty short on the so-called residuals, or back-end, of revenue from streaming on services such as Amazon and Netflix.
On the other hand, the writers also claim they are being short changed because far fewer movies are being made overall and TV shows are being produced with fewer episodes. This is a bit like trying to fight gravity or telling construction companies they need to buy expensive steel because it’s better for steel workers. Businesses, in this case media conglomerates, should not be forced to make decisions that go against basic economic logic.
Fewer movies are getting made because, in many cases, the business model stinks. Studios, and the large companies that own them, want to place fewer bets on really giant franchises that can have global appeal and be de-risked financially. Similarly, Amazon, Netflix and even HBO for that matter, are commissioning series of 6-8 episodes because they’re making a lot more shows and they want to see what works. For the most part, the days of guys who wrote for eight seasons on the Cosby Show, or much crappier shows, still collecting checks twenty years later at their homes in Sun Valley, are gone.
Perhaps the most overlooked thing about the looming writers strike is not whether people should take sides, or pity the writers, but how the free market forces shape creative enterprise. The most talented writers now command incredible prices. Those who can create great scripted drama series, or claim to, are now getting paid like pro basketball players. The billions of dollars injected into the market for high-end programming by Netflix and Amazon has created incredible demand for writers who can craft shows with nuance and extremes. People who can create worlds and characters which viewers can’t stop watching. White angels and dark angels. Incest and taboo sexual proclivities. Heroes and villains that define the culture weaved into delicious narratives with touch and original voice.
The audience appetite for crappy, mass market movies/shows is down. Bad shows on all things to all people broadcast networks are bad business. Cheesy movies and predictable shows on cable networks for fill-in-the-blank specific demographic are mostly a flat-growth business.
People are increasingly willing to pay for great, high quality entertainment. The real, long-term issue for writers and producer is to get more aligned on making things people want to watch, and critically, for which they will pay a premium. And then, sure, when the scribes do great work give them more of the action.