Writer’s Guild of America members went on strike earlier this month after a new contract agreement was not reached with management. Now in its third week, the strike is in many ways a referendum on how the entertainment industry has struggled to adapt to new technology in a way that’s sustainable for its workers.
“It would be nice to be taken more seriously as a valued member of the art that we produce and for a deal that allows for the longevity of writers,” Nicole Drespel, who’s written for shows on Netflix and Amazon Prime, said at a rally in New York City outside of 30 Rockefeller Plaza. “As opposed to it being kind of a gig economy where there’s no stability, something that acknowledges that we’re a major piece of the art that gets made and consumed.”
Marketplace’s Sabri Ben-Achour wanted to know more about the driving forces behind the strike. He spoke with Abraham Ravid, who is chair of the finance department at Yeshiva University and has researched media and entertainment contracts.
The following is an edited transcript of their conversation.
Sabri Ben-Achour: Ultimately, what is the biggest sticking point in this dispute?
Abraham Ravid: One issue is that the streaming services do not really have a very good business model themselves. And as we know, Disney has lost hundreds of millions of dollars in streaming. And the writers want to have some compensation based on viewership. Now, the problem is that streaming services themselves don’t necessarily directly make money of viewership. So it’s very difficult to attach a number. And to basically say, “OK, the writers get 2% of this,” because there’s no money directly related to it. The second issue is artificial intelligence. It’s very difficult at this point in history to negotiate over artificial intelligence where neither side knows exactly what can be done with it.
Ben-Achour: Artificial intelligence, that’s a pretty recent development that the union is trying to get out in front of, that everyone’s trying to get out in front of. How is AI playing out in this dispute?
Ravid: Certainly I understand their point of view. They don’t want to be replaced by AI. But I think it’s very difficult to get the studios to agree to such a thing when they themselves don’t know what they want to do with AI and what AI is able to do.
Ben-Achour: You know, if this strike comes down to a business model and technologies that have not been fully figured out, fleshed out, how do you see this being resolved?
Ravid: They will have to come to some sort of an agreement as to what will happen with AI. Let’s say they would say it could be used under some conditions, or the writers could use it. And then they’ll have to renegotiate. These agreements are routinely negotiated every three years. The studios are saying, let’s have annual meetings and discuss advancements in technology. So the writers see it as not a good faith offer. But in fact, in the case of artificial intelligence, it’s very hard to see what else you would do because it’s evolving a lot faster than other technologies. So I hope that it will not become a sticking point and we’ll just drag it on because it’s very difficult to get, you know, a conclusive detail agreement on AI at this point in history.
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