In the not-so-distant past, September was once one of the most exciting times to turn on the TV. Fan favorite network hits made their return to homes around the world, shows that survived pilot season earlier in the year would get to make their full season debut — after writers and actors worked all summer to turn out a full 24-episode season.
But as streaming services have continued to inspire more households to “pull the plug,” the entertainment industry has had to shift exponentially in how it creates programming.
The success of streaming service original programming such as “Stranger Things” (Netflix), “The Handmaid’s Tale” (Hulu), “And Just Like That” (Max, formerly HBOMax), “The Mandalorian” (Disney+), “Ted Lasso” (Apple TV+) and hundreds more has forced networks — and subsequently every person involved in the creative process — to adjust to the new culture of entertainment. And as the prices continue to rise on just about everything, including your favorite streaming service, writers and actors stand on a united front demanding production companies adapt contracts to better support artists as the industry continues to change.
On May 2, the Writers Guild of America went on strike after ongoing labor disputes with the Alliance of Motion Picture and Television Producers. Beginning July 14, the Screen Actors Guild- American Federation of Television and Radio Artists went on strike, joining forces with the WGA to combat broader labor disputes in the entertainment industry. Currently AMPTP negotiates on behalf of over 350 production companies, including entertainment giants such as Walt Disney Studios, Paramount Pictures, Warner Bros., Universal Studios, Sony Pictures and streaming services such as Netflix, Amazon, Apple and Max. The monumental strike marks the first time since 1960 both unions have joined forces against production companies, with SAG-AFTRA standing firmly by WGA.
The WGA represents dual labor unions for writers, Writers Guild of America West as well as Writers Guild of America East. At the time of the strike, the union represents 11,500 writers with 97.85% of those members agreeing to the strike April 17 if AMPTP was not willing to agree to the demands being presented by WGA. SAG-AFTRA represents actors, broadcast journalists, dancers, voice over artists and more. The union covers approximately 160,000 members. The previous contract held between SAG-AFTRA and AMPTP was set to expire June 30 but negotiations were extended until July 12. When both parties were unable to reach an agreement, SAG-AFTRA officially joined WGA on strike.
Prior to officially striking, many prominent SAG-AFTRA members had taken to the picket lines to vocalize their support for WGA. The decision to strike was not something taken lightly by SAG-AFTRA President Fran Drescher who delivered a fiery press statement July 13 following the announcement of SAG-AFTRA joining the picket lines.
“You cannot change the business model as much as it has changed and not expect the contract to change too,” Drescher said on AMPTP’s unwillingness to meet the union’s demands.
WGA remains firm on their demands, with SAG-AFTRA remaining firm in their support for the writer’s guild. Both unions are seeking a reevaluation of residuals, pay increases and contracted agreements on the involvement of artificial intelligence within the industry. SAG-AFTRA is seeking to have regulations of the currently popular, and completely unregulated, “self-tape” audition process. WGA is addressing how streaming culture has changed the writer’s room, and demanding AMPTP companies adjust the way series are produced to better protect writers from gaps in employment, and subsequently a paycheck.
Prior to the success of streaming giants such as Netflix, Amazon and Hulu, network television operated on a relatively stable schedule once a show was added to a network’s weekly lineup. A first season of a show would run 10-13 episodes to gauge interest, and if picked up by the network, a season would consist of 22-26 episodes running between September to May. While of course there’s always the risk of canceling/ending a series, this production format provided writers with a sense of stability that has since ceased in the streaming eras.
Streaming services’ success, in part, is due to the flexibility it offers viewers. Gone are the days of having to be at home to see what happened on the latest episode of your favorite TV show, now viewers can tune in when it’s convenient to them because the episode will live indefinitely on that network’s streaming service. After finding success in creating original programming with shows such as “House of Cards” and “Orange is the New Black,” Netflix began to drop full seasons of a show at one time, once a year (or two or three), with other streaming services following this business model. These seasons are often times half, or less, than that of a traditional network series runtime with 13 or less episodes but have more content per episode without having to account for advertisements or constricting scheduling blocks that network television presents.
Through this business model, writers have been shifted to spending less time on a series annually, despite turning out longer form episodes. Additionally, writers have found themselves locked into contracts with production companies that prevent writers from being able to pick up other writing jobs between projects, leaving them at the will of the streaming service for an indefinite period. As the writer’s pay period shortens and the writing period for a project shrinks, residual checks become increasingly important in supplementing a writer’s income between jobs.
Writers and actors alike have taken to social media platforms to share their residual checks in hopes of bringing clarity to the issue. Actress Kimiko Glenn, of Netflix’s “Orange is the New Black,” has been outspoken on the issue of residuals for years now, first speaking out on her Tik Tok (@kimiko) in 2020.
“We did not get paid well,” Kimiko says in a July 15 TikTok, detailing her time on “Orange is the New Black.” “People were bartenders still, people had their second jobs still. They were famous … internationally famous, like (sic) couldn’t go outside but had to keep their second jobs because they couldn’t afford to not (sic).”
Social media has allowed actors and writers to humanize the strike, breaking down the concept that it is the “Hollywood elite” seeking more money, opposed to the hundreds of thousands SAG-AFTRA members that have not reached A-List celebrity status. SAG-AFTRA and WGA members from around the country have taken to the platforms to share what their residuals and annual income looks like for someone that works on several big budget projects but isn’t a Hollywood A-list name. These actors are arguing that while once residual checks were a stable source of an actor’s income, unregulated streaming has stripped them of that supplemental paycheck.
Locally, demonstrations have been popping up around the state through the Miami SAG-AFTRA chapter, which represents Florida, Puerto Rico and Alabama union members. The Miami SAG-AFTRA chapter held a strike support rally in Orlando Aug. 10 and one in Tampa Aug. 29, with more expected to be announced.
Florida-based actor Adam Vernier has been a SAG member since 1999 and until the strike has worked steadily on projects such as “Outer Banks” (Netflix) and “Queen Sugar” (OWN). Vernier spoke to Watermark and detailed what it’s like to be a SAG member in Central Florida.
“Florida was once a hotspot for film but once incentives were removed film studios picked up and moved production out of the state to places like Atlanta.”
Incentives had included certain percentages of the production budget were given back to the project from the state as an incentive for growing the local economy and employing Florida locals including talent and crew. The removal of these incentives has driven the need for self-tape auditions more and more.
“People think it’s a COVID thing, but self-taping has been around since the early 2000s,” Vernier says, “self-taping is the only way us Southeastern people can get seen.”
But just as self-tape auditions remain necessary so do regulations on turnaround times and page limits.
The last time WGA went on strike was in November 2007 lasting until February 2008, and it laid the groundwork for the ongoing 2023 strike. The 99-day shutdown permanently altered the course of television as writer’s struck in the middle of production season for many network projects. Many popular network shows, such as “Lost,” “The Office” and “Grey’s Anatomy” had their seasons cut in half due to the lost time and network standard production schedule at the time of return. Shows such as “Heroes” and “Friday Night Lights” returned to a less receptive audience after their midseason shutdowns created plot holes and confusing storylines for viewers upon return to regularly scheduled programming, nearly a year later.
The 2007-2008 WGA strike is also credited for leading to the reality TV boom of the mid 2000’s. Networks needed unscripted content resulting in new competition shows, home improvement shows, baking shows and inevitably shows that followed around friend groups and families and turning their daily lives into viewing content such as “Keeping Up with the Kardashians” and “Jersey Shore.”
While it’s not possible to know how many projects have been affected by the strike, since studio projects in any stage of production have ceased, it’s been reported at least 73 major studio films and TV series have come to a standstill. Interim contracts are being granted to projects on a case-by-case basis, permitting they align themselves with WGA and SAGAFTRA’s demands, and are being produced by a company not represented under AMPTP.
With queer representation at an all-time high in media, the strike presents challenges for both the LGBTQ+ viewer, writer and actor. Fans will have to wait indefinitely to see some of their favorite queer storylines return to their screens, with shows such as “Yellowjackets,” “Abbot Elementary,” “The White Lotus,” “Good Trouble” and “Euphoria” writer’s rooms now stuck in limbo as WGA continues to fight for their demands.
And with SAG-AFTRA joining in the strike, thousands are now out of work as sets around the world shut down. Creative driven jobs on sets such as hair styling, wardrobe, set design and make-up artists have been sent home from sets as AMPTP refuses to meet the union’s joint demands, and the union’s refuse to budge. SAG-AFTRA is seeking to include these creative, behind-the-scenes jobs in their contract negotiations, seeking more wardrobe representation and diversified hair and make-up artists on set that can work safely with different hair textures. The strike is expected to cost the industry millions of dollars, and undoubtedly has already disrupted the lives of thousands of working artists in the entertainment industry.
Both WGA and SAG-AFTRA have set up relief funds for union members who meet qualifications and accept donations for the fund. For more information, to donate or to seek relief, go to SAGAFTRA.Foundation/EmergencyFinancialAssistance and WGAContract2023.org/Strike-Hub.