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Streaming changed the Hollywood landscape. Now its writers are voting to go on strike

AYESHA RASCOE, HOST:

Hollywood writers will cast their last votes tomorrow authorizing their union to strike if it doesn't reach an agreement with studios. The Writers Guild of America is demanding better pay and residuals from features and theaters and streaming platforms. Adam Conover is the host of "Adam Ruins Everything" on truTV and a member of the WGA's Negotiating Committee. Sean Collins Smith is a Guild member and has written for the popular NBC show "Chicago P.D." They both join me now. Hello to you both.

ADAM CONOVER: Hello there. Thanks so much for having us.

SEAN COLLINS-SMITH: Hey, great to be here.

RASCOE: So, you know, what is the writers' position at this moment, and what do you need? What are you asking for?

CONOVER: Well, currently, what we're doing right now is we're taking a strike authorization vote, and we're hoping that our members support that in record numbers. And the reason we're doing that is because we've faced, you know, an unprecedented assault by the companies reducing our wages, our compensation, our residuals and our working conditions over the last 10 years. In these negotiations, we're looking to plug those holes, you know, establish protections that will make sure that writers who work on shows that have budgets in the tens of millions of dollars or movies that have budgets in the hundreds of millions of dollars that are, you know, huge moneymakers for these studios - we want to make sure those writers are able to still afford to live and work in Los Angeles or New York or whatever city they live in. We're fighting for basic economic survival.

RASCOE: So tell me about how streaming has changed the landscape for Hollywood writers and how that connects to the demands of the Guild, because it's very different when it was just network and cable TV, right?

CONOVER: That's true. But I think that it's possible to oversell how big the streaming transition has been, because it's not just a technological change. The companies have used the transition to streaming as an excuse to find new ways to pay writers less money. Doesn't matter that it's getting - you're getting it on your cable box versus your Apple TV. What matters is the companies have figured out, ah, there's a loophole in the contract. We don't need to pay those writers the minimum. And that's the kind of thing we're looking to plug.

RASCOE: So, Sean, you've written for streaming shows and broadcasts. Can you talk about how they're different?

COLLINS-SMITH: One of the biggest differences between - for instance, like, I wrote on an hourlong streaming show for Peacock, and now I write for an hourlong procedural for NBC. So that's a difference between broadcast and streaming. And my experiences in the room for both were pretty similar - I mean, great showrunners, great writers, you know, great from top to bottom. But the pay could not be more diametrically opposite. I mean, my show on streaming, if I got a residual check for that - I'm not even kidding - it might be $5, $50, $100 if that.

My first residual for my episode that airs on NBC is going to be closer to $25,000. You know, if someone outside of Hollywood hears that number, they're like, that's a lot of money. There's no way you should expect that in any other industry. But the thing in the writing industry is that you might go one, two, three years without a job. And so for a lot of these writers over the last few decades, residuals were how they made ends meet until they could get into the next room.

RASCOE: So, Sean, one other thing that has been happening a lot is that things will get made for streaming or what have you, and then they never see the light of day. I understand that you worked on a streaming show, and that happened. So what does that mean for you as far as payment if the show that you make or the movie that you make gets shelved?

COLLINS-SMITH: I mean - well, I mean, at that point, you're - for me anyway, it didn't reduce that much pay because I got on my show as a staff writer, and staff writers don't get script fees. And that's a whole nother issue that I won't launch into. But for other writers, if they're in a room for 10, 15 weeks and the show doesn't go to air, maybe that's the difference for some kind of residual or maybe a script fee that they might not get.

CONOVER: Look, writers have always dealt with shows being canceled. The issue is we need ways in our contract that will guarantee that when writers are spending, you know, six months just to get a job and that's the only job they get in that year - that that job pays for their year's mortgage or rent or food supply.

RASCOE: If a strike happens - there was one that happened in 2007 that lasted 100 days - how might a strike now be similar or different from that one?

CONOVER: You know, that's a very good question. One way is that in 2007, writers picketed the studio entrances - right? - because writers were used to going to work in physical locations. Now a lot of television writing is done over Zoom. And so, you know, we're talking about doing virtual picket lines over Zoom. One of the other differences is that, you know, there are a few less shows that are on every single night that use writing services every single day. There's a couple less late-night shows than there were back in 2007. But there's still enough that a strike is going to have a big impact.

RASCOE: You know, Sean, now with what you've experienced since starting to write for TV and everything that we've talked about today, are you optimistic about the future of this industry?

COLLINS-SMITH: You know, weirdly enough, I am. And I think the reason that I'm optimistic is because I've seen the power of the Guild to organize and to get people together to vote yes on something. I mean, and as simple as that sounds, you know, my first two full-time jobs were both journalism jobs, and we did not have unions. My next two jobs that have been full time - one was teaching, and now I'm writing - I did have a union, and I have seen firsthand with both of these jobs how much better my environment has been and how much easier it is to ask for something important and then get it.

RASCOE: Sean Collins-Smith is a writer for "Chicago P.D." and a member of the Writers Guild of America. Adam Conover, who is the host of "Adam Ruins Everything" on truTV and a member of the Guild's Negotiating Committee - thank you both for joining us.

COLLINS-SMITH: Thank you.

CONOVER: Thank you so much. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Ayesha Rascoe
Ayesha Rascoe is the host of Weekend Edition Sunday and the Saturday episodes of Up First. As host of the morning news magazine, she interviews news makers, entertainers, politicians and more about the stories that everyone is talking about or that everyone should be talking about.
Ryan Benk