'NOT ENOUGH PAY': Late-night TV shows go dark as writers go on strike


Hollywood writers have for decades penned sci-fi scripts featuring machines taking over the world. Now, they are fighting to make sure robots do not take their jobs.

The Writers Guild of America is seeking to restrict the use of artificial intelligence in writing film and television scripts. Hollywood studios, battling to make streaming services profitable and dealing with shrinking ad revenues, have rejected that idea, saying they would be open to discussing new technologies once a year, according to the guild.

A spokesperson for the Alliance of Motion Picture and Television Producers, which is negotiating the contract on behalf of the studios, did not comment.

The dispute over AI is one of several issues that led Hollywood’s film and TV writers to strike Monday, marking the first work stoppage in 15 years.

Although the issue is one of the last items described in a WGA summary of negotiating points, many of which focus on improving compensation in the streaming era, the debate over AI's role in the creative process will determine the future of entertainment for decades to come.

Screenwriter John August, a member of the WGA negotiating committee, said writers have two concerns regarding AI.

"We don't want our material feeding them, and we also don't want to be fixing their sloppy first drafts," he said.

At issue is a rapidly growing, multifaceted technology that's swept across the global industry.

In Hollywood, AI is helping to erase wrinkles from an aging performer’s face, clean up an actor’s liberal use of f-bombs and draw animated short films with the aid of OpenAI’s Dall-E, which can create realistic images. Some writers are experimenting with creating scripts.

"The problem here seems to be that we thought that creativity, per se, was the last bastion, the line in the sand, that would stop machines from replacing someone's job," said Mike Seymour, co-founder of Motus Lab at the University of Sydney, who has a background in visual effects and artificial intelligence and has consulted with several studios. "I would argue that that's just some kind of arbitrary notion that people had that caught the popular imagination."

AI can help writers break "the blank piece of the paper phenomenon," Seymour said, and it's good at what he describes as "pantomime," or producing straight-forward, blunt dialogue, though it lacks nuance.

"I'm also not claiming that AI is going to become super intelligent and produce, you know, 'Citizen Kane,' because it just isn't right," said Seymour.

Writers fear they will be sidelined, or at least, shortchanged.

"What (AI) could do is spew out a garbled piece of work," said Warren Leight, a screenwriter who served as showrunner and executive producer of the NBC drama “Law & Order: SVU.”

"Instead of hiring you to do a first draft, (studios) hire you to do a second draft, which pays less. You want to nip that in the bud."

The union proposed that material generated by an AI system such as ChatGPT could not be considered "literary material" or "source material," terms already defined in their contract.

As a practical matter, that means that if a studio executive were to hand a writer an AI-generated script to revise, the writer could not be paid a lower rewrite or polish rate.

The union is arguing existing scripts should not be used to train artificial intelligence, which would open the door to intellectual property theft.

"We call it the 'Nora Ephron problem,'" August said, referring to the writer of romantic comedy hits including "When Harry Met Sally" and "You've Got Mail."

"One can imagine a studio training an AI on all of Nora Ephron's scripts, and having it write a comedy in her voice. Our proposals would prevent that."

WGA chief negotiator Ellen Stutzman said some members have another term for AI: "plagiarism machines.”

“We have made a reasonable proposal that the company should keep AI out of the business of writing television and movies and not try and replace writers," she said.

Streaming and its ripple effects are at the center of the dispute. The guild says that even as series budgets have increased, writers’ share of that money has consistently shrunk.

Streaming services’ use of smaller staffs — known in the industry as “mini rooms” — for shorter stints has made sustained income harder to come by, the guild says. And the number of writers working at guild minimums has gone from about a third to about half in the past decade. Writers of the comedy-variety show for streaming have no minimum protections at all, the guild says.

“On TV staffs, more writers are working at a minimum regardless of experience, often for fewer weeks,” the guild said in a March report.

The lack of a regular seasonal calendar in streaming has depressed pay further, the report says. And scheduled annual pay bumps under the current contract have fallen well short of increases in inflation.

The weekly minimum for a staff writer on a television series in the 2019-2020 season was $4,546, according to industry trade outlet Variety. They work an average of 29 weeks on a network show for $131,834 annually or an average of 20 weeks on a streaming show for $90,920. For a writer-producer, the figure is $6,967 per week.

The Alliance of Motion Picture and Television Producers, which represents Hollywood’s studios, streamers, and production companies, say their priority is “the long-term health and stability of the industry” and they are dedicated to reaching “a fair and reasonable agreement.”

Months of negotiations still left considerable distance between writers and the AMPTP. The Writers Guild of America — whose East and West versions are technically two unions that act as a unit in these negotiations.

Talks, which often extend for hours or days past a contract deadline, instead ended hours before the most recent contract expired Monday night. By that point writers, who voted overwhelmingly to authorize their leaders to call a strike, had already begun making signs for picket lines, Which they promptly put to use Tuesday.

The AMPTP said that it had offered “generous increases in compensation for writers as well as improvements in streaming residuals” and would improve its offer but couldn’t due to the multitude of demands by the writers.

Why Hollywood writers went on strike
TV and film production faces an uncertain future with a Hollywood writers' strike beginning Tuesday with picket lines in New York and Los Angeles. The industry's first work stoppage in 15 years comes after streaming services upended traditional business models. (May 2)
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Late-night talk shows, heavily dependent on same-day, current-events-based comedy writing, were the first to feel the strike’s effect. The shows have been the de facto frontline during previous writers' strikes. NBC’s “The Tonight Show Starring Jimmy Fallon,” ABC’s “ Jimmy Kimmel Live!” and CBS’s “The Late Show With Stephen Colbert” all went immediately into hiatus and will air reruns. James Corden’s Thursday night farewell to his “Late Late Show” was well-timed.

“Saturday Night Live,” nearly as dependent on last-minute writing, has already axed this week’s episode with host Pete Davidson. The final two episodes in the season that follow it are in serious jeopardy.

The status of daytime talk shows, which lean more into host chats and interviews, is less certain. ABC’s “The View” was uninterrupted during the last strike, which began late in 2007 and ended early in 2008.


The strike’s impact on scripted series could take far longer to manifest, though some, including Showtime’s “Yellowjackets” are already pausing production. Noticeable effects on the movie release calendar could take even longer.

Production on finished screenplays can proceed as planned (without the benefit of last-minute rewrites). In general, Hollywood’s other unions — including guilds for actors and directors, both of which face expiring deals with AMPTP in the coming months — are forbidden by their contracts to join the current strike and must continue working, though both members and leaders have expressed solidarity with the WGA.

Productions, long aware of the looming deadline, sought to wrap before it arrived. FilmLA, which hands out location permits for the Los Angeles area, says that none have been requested for television dramas or sitcoms this week.

Depending on their media consumption methods, many viewers and moviegoers may not notice the effects of a strike until long after it’s over, if at all. The menus on Netflix and Amazon Prime Video will look no different next week, but because this would be the first writers’ strike of the streaming era, there is no template for how they will look months down the line.

During the last strike, when broadcast and cable networks with well-established seasonal schedules were still predominant, many shows, including “30 Rock,” “CSI,” and “Grey’s Anatomy,” shortened their seasons.

Unscripted reality television grew in strength at the time. “Big Brother” and “The Amazing Race” both increased their output. “The Apprentice,” hosted by Donald Trump, got new life when a celebrity version of the shelved show was created to help fill the scripted void.


The full stop to work will mean major economic losses for screenwriters, though many say it’s worth it to fight the day-to-day dwindling of income.

Guild strike rules prevent members from striking new deals, making new pitches, or turning in new scripts. They are allowed to accept payment for any writing that’s already been done.

Those known in the industry as “hyphenates,” including showrunners who act as head writer-producers, performer-writers, and people like Quinta Brunson of “Abbot Elementary” who do all the above, are allowed to do the non-writing parts of their jobs under union rules, though that work may be minimal as they seek solidarity with their writing staffs. (At Monday’s Met Gala, Bruson said “I’m a member of the WGA and support WGA and ... We, us, us getting what we need. ... No one wants a strike, but I hope that we’re able to rectify this, whatever that means”)

Writers have gone on strike six times, more than any group in Hollywood.

The first came in 1960, a Writers Guild walkout that lasted nearly five months. Strikes followed in 1973, 1981, and 1985. The longest work stoppage, lasting exactly five months, came in 1988.

The 2007-2008 strike was resolved after three months. Among the main concessions the writers won were requirements that fledgling streaming shows would have to hire guild writers if their budgets were big enough. It was an early harbinger of nearly every entertainment labor fight in the years that followed.

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