September 15, 2023 | ARTS AND ENTERTAINMENT | By Adriana Kyncl

The television industry is currently in turmoil. The Writers Guild of America (WGA, a writer’s union that represents 11,500 American writers) is in their second-longest strike ever, and the Screen Actors Guild and the American Federation of Television and Radio Artists (SAG-AFTRA, an actor’s union representing 160,000 American actors) is striking for the first time since 1980. The Emmys are delayed, actors are banned from promoting movies, and California’s economy is down by an estimated $3 billion.

So, what’s the cause of these strikes?

The economic recession, combined with the shift from traditional TV to streaming services, has dramatically changed the industry landscape. Before the era of streaming, TV series typically spanned over 20 episodes with multiple seasons. This consistency would provide writers with a stable income, as they worked on a team of seven to eight others for about 10 months per season.

When shows would go into syndication, writers would get a large payout for these residuals. These long-term, recurring payments were given to actors and writers for every time their episode or movie aired past its original release. But streaming has disrupted this model. Many companies, eager to cut costs due to still-growing subscriber bases, have shortened show lengths and reduced the number of writers they hire. Now, most series run for eight-to-ten episodes, and “mini” writers’ rooms of two-three writers are common, with lower pay, shorter contracts, and fewer protections.

Before streaming, writers would often move their way up in a room and, in doing so, would get producer credits and engage with production, therefore earning more money. However, now, with streaming, companies are quick to have writers finish their jobs before production starts, thereby excluding them from that process. Along with the fact that writers are now paid nearly nothing for residuals, even for shows like “Stranger Things” that drive subscribers to a particular streaming site, writers are now getting paid significantly less than they have in the past.

In fact, after adjusting for inflation, writer-producer pay has fallen by 23% over the last 10 years. Because of this, writers are demanding better residuals, wage adjustments for inflation, artificial intelligence guidelines, improved benefits, and fairer pay in mini rooms – a package totaling $429 million yearly, merely 2% of the combined profits of major streaming services. Yet, the Alliance of Motion Picture and Television Producers only offered $86 million, pushing writers to strike.

Actors are striking for reasons echoing the writers’. Despite top-tier actors like Tom Cruise earning millions of dollars per movie he stars in, a staggering 78% of SAG-AFTRA actors don’t earn enough to even qualify for health insurance.

Like writers, actors want their incomes adjusted for inflation, but studios have had a hard time answering this request. Furthermore, the decrease in residuals has affected their livelihood dramatically. Before streaming, actors would get a high residual payout, which would help them financially as they search for a new gig. Now, however, residuals pay next to nothing.

Mark Proksch, for instance, stated that he earns more from his “The Office” guest roles than from four seasons as a lead on FX’s “What We Do in The Shadows.” Mandy Moore, from NBC’s hit show, “This is Us,” revealed that she earns streaming residual checks as small as one cent. Like the writers, the actors want a cut of the streaming networks’ profits in order to increase residuals, but networks have also refused to budge.

The WGA and SAG-AFTRA strikes underscore a critical moment in entertainment history, where the creative forces are demanding their rightful share and recognition. As negotiations continue, the hope is for a resolution that ensures fair compensation and sustainable futures for all in the entertainment industry. There are rumors that strikes may end in October or that studios are simply waiting for writers to “go broke” before continuing negotiations. Regardless, it will be a while until season two of HBO’s “House of Dragon” comes on screens.

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