How Streaming Led to the TV Writers Strike: Four TV Writers Explain the Logic of the Strike

Though it’s too ear­ly to know what will turn out to be the defin­ing cul­tur­al expe­ri­ence of the twen­ty-twen­ties, I’d put my mon­ey on first hear­ing of an acclaimed tele­vi­sion show from one of its devot­ed fans only after it’s already been on the air for months or even years, if not after its lament­ed can­cel­la­tion. Part of this has to do with a change in quan­ti­ty, laid out by tele­vi­sion writer War­ren Leight in the Vox video above: “There used to be 80 shows in a year. Now you’re up to 500, 550 shows in a year,” many of them cre­at­ed not for tra­di­tion­al broad­cast net­works but for new­er, con­tent-hun­gri­er online stream­ing plat­forms. “For writ­ers, it was good because it gave peo­ple entry.”

Writ­ing for stream­ing, Leight explains, “you did­n’t have to wor­ry about com­mer­cial breaks” and their dra­mat­ic dis­rup­tions. Instead, “you get to write a dif­fer­ent struc­ture. Maybe it’s just an organ­ic three-act struc­ture to an hour.” And in short­er stream­ing sea­sons, “you could arc a sto­ry across eight episodes. You can go a lit­tle dark­er, you can go a lit­tle deep­er.”

But “as the episode orders have shrunk,” says Leight’s col­league Julia Yorks, “what used to be 40 weeks of the year that you were work­ing is now 20 weeks,” with an at-least-con­comi­tant reduc­tion in pay­checks. What­ev­er its artis­tic short­com­ings, the old “net­work mod­el” guar­an­teed a cer­tain degree of sta­bil­i­ty for those who wrote its shows — a sta­bil­i­ty dis­rupt­ed by the age of stream­ing.

Hence the ongo­ing Writ­ers Guild of Amer­i­ca strike, and the cen­tral­i­ty to the WGA’s demands of improved resid­u­als (that is, pay­ments made for a pro­duc­tion after its ini­tial run) from stream­ing media. But the pro­fes­sion­als inter­viewed for this video also express con­cerns about what hap­pens to the shows them­selves when their writ­ing gets sep­a­rat­ed from their pro­duc­tion, which has become increas­ing­ly com­mon in recent years. On the likes of Law and Order or Friends, says Yorks, “your show was being filmed con­cur­rent­ly when you were in the writ­ers’ room,” cre­at­ing nat­ur­al oppor­tu­ni­ties for con­tin­u­ous cross-dis­ci­pli­nary inter­ac­tion and col­lab­o­ra­tion. We may live in a “gold­en age of tele­vi­sion,” but left unchecked, the strain of this frag­men­ta­tion, as well as the finan­cial dif­fi­cul­ties imposed on writ­ers, could very well take the shine off of it.

Relat­ed con­tent:

Har­lan Ellison’s Won­der­ful Rant on Why Writ­ers Should Always Get Paid

Ray­mond Chan­dler: There’s No Art of the Screen­play in Hol­ly­wood

How Break­ing Bad Craft­ed the Per­fect TV Pilot: A Video Essay

10 Tips From Bil­ly Wilder on How to Write a Good Screen­play

Based in Seoul, Col­in Marshall writes and broad­casts on cities, lan­guage, and cul­ture. His projects include the Sub­stack newslet­ter Books on Cities, the book The State­less City: a Walk through 21st-Cen­tu­ry Los Ange­les and the video series The City in Cin­e­ma. Fol­low him on Twit­ter at @colinmarshall or on Face­book.

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