Writers on strike!

David EideOpinion Columnist

If you like to follow Film and Television news as I sometimes do, you’ve probably heard about the writer’s strike that is still ongoing as of the writing of this column. This strike is incredibly important, and it has affected the productions of some of the most popular TV shows currently airing such as the fifth and final season of Stranger Things as well as Saturday Night Live. Beyond just affecting how consumers will experience their favorite TV shows, the strike also speaks to important issues such as the rights of workers and how AI is already disrupting industries. As someone who is very interested in film and TV production, I think discussing the causes of the strike and my perspective on it might be helpful to those who perhaps aren’t as tuned in to the issues surrounding the writer’s strike.

The strike is being organized by the Writers Guild of America (WGA), the single largest union for writers in the US, and began on May 2 when negotiations between the WGA and the body representing film and television production companies broke down. As a result of the strike, WGA members are refusing to work on any scripts, meaning that many ongoing productions have had to pause or adopt some kind of countermeasure. This situation is not unprecedented, as the last major WGA strike occurred in November of 2007 and lasted until February of 2008, so if this current strike is anything like that one, we might be in this for the long haul. During the 2007-2008 strike, many television shows had to cut their seasons short while the networks greenlit a number of unscripted series which mostly consisted of godawful reality TV shows that we’re still stuck with to this day. It remains to be seen if this current strike will have the same effect, but I sure hope it doesn’t, as I don’t think I can deal with reality TV becoming even more prominent.

On social media, I’ve seen several people express their frustration with the decision of the WGA to go on strike as they rely on TV shows for some level of psychological coping. I don’t have much sympathy for this point of view, personally speaking. While I understand that TV is a very important thing to many people, the fact remains that the strike is fundamentally about workers trying to improve their livelihoods through collective action, which is a time-honored method for the labor movement. I think part of the issue is that many people don’t really see being a writer as a job based on labor due to the generalized perception our society has of writers as independent artists. Others simply believe that writers aren’t anything special and that they could do the job just as well. Both of these viewpoints are deeply flawed and inaccurate. At this point, writing for television is the same as being a part of a massive well-oiled machine of which creativity is only one variable that must be considered. Furthermore, it is not easy to be a writer for Television as while I have seen some pretty bad TV writing over the years, I’ve also seen the stuff non-writers put out, and trust me, it gets pretty rough. When it comes to labor disputes and strikes, I tend to support organized labor and unions over management and the current writer’s strike is no exception.

The writer’s strike also involves an issue that has seen a surge in news coverage this year, namely the rise of generative AI programs and the effect that they will have on society and the economy. Specifically, one of the sticking points for the WGA in their negotiations with the representatives of the television and film industry was that generative AI -such as ChatGPT- couldn’t be used to write wholly original scripts, only to assist in brainstorming. This is fascinating to me because it is perhaps the first instance of AI seriously disrupting an industry since the hype around the technology began in the middle of last year. Of course, AI isn’t actually writing scripts at this point, but the mere fact that the WGA is concerned enough about that possibility to include a preemptive ban on the technology as a major sticking point in their negotiating position speaks to the potential of AI to completely upend several major industries. In the future, we may see several unions and professional organizations seek to impose similar regulations for fear of AI supplanting their jobs. 

Speaking personally, I understand the fear of the WGA but I am still not convinced as to the long-term ability of AI to seriously displace most human writing positions. While the technology is still young and could develop so as to produce texts that rival those produced by humans, at the moment AI writing is kind of a joke that regurgitates Google results. I very easily could be proven wrong of course, we’ll just have to wait and see. At the very least, we should all be supporting the WGA and the writers who make it up as they seek a fairer deal from the massive entertainment conglomerates that have frequently screwed over writers when it comes to issues like royalties and wages.

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