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If you think a writers strike will be bad for viewers, status quo may be even worse

Members of the Writers Guild of America (WGA) East picketed outside of the Peacock NewFront on May 2, 2023 in New York City as the WGA strike began.
Michael M. Santiago
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Getty Images
Members of the Writers Guild of America (WGA) East picketed outside of the Peacock NewFront on May 2, 2023 in New York City as the WGA strike began.

It's beyond question that the WGA strike, which began Tuesday, will have potentially devastating effects on writers, on the industry, and on the economy. That's not controversial; people don't engage in strikes expecting them not to be painful. A strike is, at its core, based on a calculation that the painful short-term effects of being out of work are worth the long-term gains, and that the pain to the people you're negotiating with will — if not immediately, then eventually — motivate them to make concessions.

But the analysis of short-term and long-term benefit doesn't always make it to the viewership side. Audiences are, for instance, often listed among the potential losers of a strike, based on the possibility of disrupted production and the existence of fewer things to watch. And those effects will come: late-night shows will likely be affected first, with other gaps potentially varying based on the lead times of very different projects like network shows, streaming shows, big movies, small movies, and even events like awards shows. It's hard to say how quickly, but if a strike lasts long enough, viewers will certainly lose out, to some degree.

Viewers are also, however, among the long-term potential beneficiaries in the event that a strike and its resulting resolution can fix what the WGA has repeatedly referred to as a broken system. Does it really matter to the audience what the WGA contract looks like? Of course it does.

Ethical consumption and entertainment

Start with the simple question of ethical consumption. It's perfectly valid for an audience member to say, "I would prefer not to get my entertainment through an industry that is economically exploitative." Does the WGA contract alone determine whether the industry is exploitative? Of course not. But just as it's reasonable to take an interest in the working conditions of the place where your clothes are made or your food is produced, it's reasonable to care about the working conditions of a show or a movie that you pay to see. If you are willing to change your habits over the idea that someone in Hollywood is abusing actors or crew or anyone else, you can absolutely take an interest in whether success can keep a writer financially solvent and whether even someone who works for a hit show can make much money from it.

This is even more compelling as an audience interest when you remember that the DGA (the directors) and SAG (the actors) are also scheduled to negotiate new contracts this year. It's a precarious time for labor in Hollywood across fields, so there's every reason to at least pay attention if you care about working conditions. And for a lot of people, the pandemic was an opportunity to think differently about labor — their own and everyone else's — so a strike may be received differently, and maybe more positively, than similar actions in the past.

Labor and making good TV

There's also a strong argument that some elements of the WGA dispute directly affect whether the TV you get to see is good. One of the issues this year, for example, is the phenomenon of the "mini-room." Without getting too in the weeds, that can mean different things, but it can mean in part that many writers are separated from the rest of the process to save money — brought in to bang out scripts and then sent home without having anything to do with production. One anonymous writer told IndieWire:

What we're losing by these companies shrinking the duties down to just the most upper-level writers is you're losing the opportunity for the mid-level and lower-level writers to be exposed to what it means to have producer in your title. They're losing their apprenticeship because studios and networks don't want to pay to keep a full staff around to do the things that our title says we should know how to do.

Vice ran a piece in May 2022 about the "showrunning crisis" that has arisen from a bunch of different factors, but one is the change in how TV is made and the relationships between writers as such and the rest of production. If you do not give showrunners a chance to train, you wind up with a less functional workplace (and one more prone to abuse), but you also wind up with — I firmly believe, based on watching a whole lot of stuff, good and bad — worse television.

Writing TV is an art, of course, yes, but it also has elements of straightforward execution. That's one of the reasons I think a large audience has gravitated to, for instance, Shawn Ryan's The Night Agent on Netflix. Is it the most innovative show I've ever seen? No. But the elements are built right, information about the twisty spy story is provided at the right pace, the episodes are structured so that one naturally builds anticipation for the next, and the story is neither too complicated nor too simple. I watch a lot of TV, and while it might not sound romantic to say so, when I find myself tearing through something like I tore through that sucker, it's often because the fundamentals are sound.

Their soundness makes a lot of sense, because Shawn Ryan has a lot of experience. He was the showrunner of The Shield and Terriers, and in fact, he's one of several future big-time producers who wrote for the Don Johnson vehicle Nash Bridges, including Damon Lindelof (Lost, Watchmen) and Glen Mazzara (The Walking Dead). Ryan has worked on a ton of shows, and he knows how to make television. You can't necessarily just port over a playwright or a screenwriter from film and expect them to run a television show. Episodic television is a format you learn to work in.

So if writers are right that training is being hollowed out by the way their contracts are structured, then viewers stand to benefit from rebuilding it.

Marginalized writers — and their audiences

Crucially, the "showrunner crisis" — alongside the loss of training, and the crumbling of opportunities for beginning writers to build their skills at work — is also a disaster for Hollywood's already shaky diversity efforts. Television has always operated on what I once called a "paper-clip chain" model, where

...it unfortunately doesn't take a willful commitment to sameness to perpetuate sameness. People who run shows tend to hire people they've worked with on other shows. And then eventually those people get their own shows, and they hire the people who were at the bottom of the ladder when they were in the middle. You often see people on the same panels and in the same credits from year to year. It becomes a paper-clip chain of people who know each other, and when that happens, it's easy to understand. It's hard to interrupt. That doesn't take malevolence. It just takes inertia and preference and instinct without intervention.

So if you freeze writer-producers in place where it's much harder to add people to that chain, where nobody can get a job with someone who's already established and get the training that they might want, you supercharge the advantages that people have who are already successful. You probably increase the likelihood of a single super-producer presiding over an empire that controls nine hours of prime time TV real estate. There are ways for gifted writers to get around the paper-clip chains — both Quinta Brunson and Issa Rae garnered fans through online work, for instance. But a lot of the executive producers currently at the helm of high-profile shows are still people who worked and worked and worked in TV, well before they got to be in charge — just like Shawn Ryan, working on Nash Bridges.

When you get more homogenous entertainment, viewers lose. Viewers who specifically value representation certainly lose, but really, all viewers do. It's enriching — it is of specific, meaningful value to you as a human being — to be offered films and television, whether dramatic, comedic, or both, that see stories through a mix of different lenses. New and varied voices, including voices that have been marginalized for ages, are critical to keeping that mix vital and engaging.

So viewers may be among the short-term losers in a strike. But they are sure to be among the long-term losers if nothing changes and the WGA is right about both how the industry is operating right now and how it may operate in the future. (Do you really want your shows and movies written — or even part-written — by AI?) A strike is potentially very disruptive to viewers who value their favorite shows and are hoping that the momentum behind tentpole movies will keep bringing people back to theaters. But the system we have now seems not built to last, given that 98 percent of the people who often make the first move in a highly collaborative act of creation are prepared to stop writing in order to change it.

Copyright 2023 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

Linda Holmes is a pop culture correspondent for NPR and the host of Pop Culture Happy Hour. She began her professional life as an attorney. In time, however, her affection for writing, popular culture, and the online universe eclipsed her legal ambitions. She shoved her law degree in the back of the closet, gave its living room space to DVD sets of The Wire, and never looked back.
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