WGA Strike Wins The Battle, But War Ahead

Screenwriters on strike protest in front of Paramount Studios on May 2, 2023 in Los Angeles, California. - More than 11,000 Hollywood television and movie writers went on their first strike in 15 years, after talks with studios and streamers over pay and working conditions failed to clinch a deal. The strike means late-night shows are expected to grind to a halt immediately, while television series and movies scheduled for release later this year and beyond could face major delays. (Photo by VALERIE MACON / AFP) (Photo by VALERIE MACON/AFP via Getty Images)

This summer, two significant and seemingly unrelated events related to the entertainment industry unfolded. Late-night talk shows disappeared from their usual television line-ups, and the popular Netflix series, “Black Mirror,” presented a thought-provoking episode on AI-generated shows. These two events are intertwined in a rather convoluted manner, and they shed light on issues that affect the creative industry and, more broadly, society in an age of evolving technology. Between May 2nd and September 27th of this year, the Writers Guild of America (WGA) engaged in a prolonged strike at the Peacock Newfront in New York and ten Hollywood studios, seeking fair compensation, improved working conditions, and a re-evaluation of their role in the ever-changing landscape of the entertainment industry. The strike successfully concluded with the studios and writers reaching an agreement, but it brought a host of familiar and pressing social issues to the forefront. These issues could be the first of many as our way of life integrates and adapts to new technologies.

First, let’s examine why the creative minds behind some of our most beloved shows and movies felt compelled to go on strike. You might wonder why they are doing this if they are already well-paid, living the dream in Hollywood. In reality, for a vast majority of writers, this is not a reality. Much like in any creative field, a select few at the top of the industry earn substantial incomes, while thousands of others who play a critical role in creating a hit show struggle to make ends meet. While this income disparity is not a new phenomenon, what changed dramatically was the explosive growth of streaming platforms.

Streaming platforms have significantly limited or, in some cases, eliminated residual payments — compensation that writers received when their shows were broadcast on other channels, such as beloved classics like “Seinfeld” airing on TBS. Moreover, despite increased budgets allocated to series with the rise of streaming, the share allocated to writers has consistently dwindled. Streaming services often use smaller writing teams working fewer hours, transforming writing for a show into a gig economy job rather than a stable profession. As a result, more WGA writers now work at minimum wage levels, compared to a third of them a decade ago.

As with most aspects of life, artificial intelligence (AI) has also played a role in this narrative. While we celebrated the news of AI generating a final Beatles song, the emergence of generative AI poses profound risks to writers’ roles and the job security of writers. Studios can hypothetically feed existing scripts and materials into AI engines to generate endless content. As a test, I asked ChatGPT to draft the plotline of Avengers: Endgame but add celebrity chef Gordon Ramsay from Hell’s Kitchen as a major character (click here), and it gave me the essence of a story with plotlines that rivaled the original. This technology can potentially push us closer to a “Black Mirror” reality than we might be comfortable admitting. Studios could increasingly rely on AI to generate content, sidelining creative professionals. Therefore, the WGA’s demands now encompass restrictions on the use of AI for content creation, aiming to prevent AI from being recognized as a “writer” and to ensure that AI-generated content does not modify writer compensation, credits, or other rights.

The strike dragged on for months, leaving late-night talk shows and variety programs, such as “Saturday Night Live” (SNL), among the first casualties. However, the strike’s impact rippled through the entertainment industry, delaying the release of upcoming shows and movies and causing significant financial losses for networks and studios. This financial pressure ultimately forced them to concede to many of the WGA’s demands. The Memorandum of Agreement (MOA) between the two parties includes minimum wage and compensation increases (3-5%), enhanced pension and health fund contributions, better employment duration and writing team terms, and more equitable residual payments. Crucially, it also introduces safeguards against the use of AI. According to the new agreement, AI cannot be classified as a “writer,” and AI-generated content will not be considered “source material.” This means a writer’s compensation, writing credits, and other rights will not be altered even when AI-generated content is involved. Significantly, negotiations on AI are set to continue, particularly regarding whether writers can restrict the use of their written material for training AI models.

The WGA strike may have concluded, but the ethical problem of embracing AI remains unresolved. AI offers an efficient means of creating content and performing various tasks. Supporters of the technology highlight the significant progress society has made thanks to disruptive tools like AI. However, it is incumbent upon society to mitigate the impact of this disruption on those affected. If the benefits of these tools and technologies are concentrated in the hands of a privileged few at the top, more people will inevitably rise and join picket lines in protest. As we move forward, we must anticipate such demands arising across various industries, and it is our responsibility as future leaders and technologists to advocate for the responsible and ethical use of technology.

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