Matt is joined by writer, TV host, and WGA negotiation committee member Adam Conover to break down what it has been like in the negotiation room from the WGA perspective over the last few months leading up to the strike. They discuss how far apart both sides sit, the most hotly contested issues—including data transparency, mini rooms, and AI—and the broad spectrum of consequences that could accompany a prolonged strike.
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In the following excerpt, Belloni and Conover discuss why the studios are pushing back on AI and debate the importance of the streaming data transparency issue.
Matt Belloni: So the studio statement yesterday announcing that the negotiations had broken down said the following: “The primary sticking points are ‘mandatory staffing’ and ‘duration of employment’—Guild proposals that would require a company to staff a show with a certain number of writers for a specific period of time, whether needed or not.” And to me, that is an interesting argument to make, because there are members of the guild who do prefer to write solo. I’m thinking Taylor Sheridan, I’m thinking David E. Kelley, and you mentioned Mike White. They are clearly trying to turn this into an issue and make it seem like the writers are being asked to be paid for nothing. Is that how you see it? I assume that’s how you see it.
Adam Conover: [Laughing.] No, that’s not how I see it. Look, we have a very small number of members who prefer to write that way. We’ve been in touch with those members. Those members have let us know that they’re not interested in being used as a pawn by ... the Alliance of Motion Picture and Television Producers to take the right to have a writers room away from the 99 percent of showrunners who rely and depend on a writers room. They know that they’re weird, right? And they’re OK with a broader struggle in order to protect the livelihoods of all writers.
Belloni: Yeah. Like Aaron Sorkin has a writers room, and then he just rewrites them all. I think Taylor Sheridan even had a writers room for one of the Yellowstone scenes, and he just rewrites it if he wants to. At least he’s giving people jobs.
Conover: The reason they are even casting that as the primary sticking point is because they believe it is divisive, but the fact is, to the Writers Guild, weekly pay for screenwriters is just as important. Having basic minimums and comedy/variety and not having a day rate are just as important. Having AI not undermine us is just as important.
Belloni: It’s bizarre they wouldn’t counter on AI. It seems like an easy give, right?
Conover: Yeah, and that is the really interesting thing, Matt, because when we went in, we thought, “Hey, this is something that we’re a bit worried about. The technology is new. We’re going to cover our bases. This is a reasonable proposal, and it probably shouldn’t be that hard because it’s not even clear if AI material is copyrightable.” The technology, frankly, is completely incapable of doing anything of help to produce production-ready scripts. It’s ludicrous to think that it is for a multitude of reasons that we could get into if you want, but I don’t think we need to. And so we thought that, at the very least, they would say, “Yeah, we’re not going to do this anyway.” But they rejected it so hard and refused to even discuss it. That is a red alert for writers. They have elevated the importance of that issue. And I don’t want to say any of our issues are more important than any of the others. Everything that you’re looking at here is a sticking point for us. Viewership-based streaming residuals are still something that we really care about.
Belloni: Well, and transparency. I’ve been harping on the transparency issue, and what I’m afraid of is that that’s something you guys are going to drop in favor of more money, because ultimately, you’re going to have to make concessions here. It’s much easier for Ellen Stutzman, your lead negotiator, to go around saying, “I got you bigger raises. We’ll deal with the other stuff down the line.” But the transparency in data is really causing problems, and arguably, that’s why we’re here right now. I just wish you guys would keep that in the forefront.
Conover: What I will say is I think there’s been a bit of a technocratic emphasis from the press on the data issue. Data is very important. However, advertising is coming back into the business, and the advertisers are going to demand public data because that’s how advertising fucking works.
Belloni: Public or NDAs where we show you, but you can’t reveal it publicly?
Conover: I mean, if that worked, they would’ve done that in the ’50s when they invented advertising-supported media. Like, the advertisers have the money, and they get to call the shots, and Netflix might not believe that right now, but give them 10 years, and they’re going to have ad breaks. They’re going to be telling the advertisers exactly when people dropped off so they can promote how many people watch the commercials. And that information is going to have to be public because advertising is a public market. That’s me speculating. I’m not speaking for the Writers Guild right there, but the idea that the Writers Guild is the only game in town that can take a crowbar, and we have to use all of our members’ leverage to get it open, it’s something that we care about, but what I think is so important to members is the fact that they are trying to turn our profession, our careers, into a gig job.
Look at what’s happened to journalism, your business, where I have so many friends in media that—I have friends who just got laid off from Vice, and they’re doing the freelance thing. That profession has ceased to exist as a viable career for so many people. You have people who say, “Oh man, if I could get one article in a place a month and make a thousand bucks, I’d be happy.” And that is what is going to happen to television writing if we don’t enforce rules of the road and put rules around the norms that have existed for decades and decades that have made these companies rich and that they are intentionally breaking. You know, the AMPTP is in many ways a cartel. All of the companies get—think about how weird this is from an antitrust perspective.
Belloni: Well, no, but it is an exception to antitrust law. You are allowed to collectively bargain like this.
Conover: And we would take issue with that, and we wish labor laws were different and that a National Labor Relations Board case had gone differently somewhere in the past. But these companies are allowed to get together and collaborate to drive down worker pay, which is illegal in most other cases in capitalism, but in this case, they happen to have found a loophole that made them allowed to do it.
Belloni: Well, but you guys are allowed to get together and drive up your pay. I mean, I get it. I see how.
Conover: Well, it’s a union. It’s labor law. So it is in their best interest to erase whatever divisions there are between them.
This excerpt was edited for clarity. Listen to the rest of the episode here and follow The Town on Spotify.
Host: Matt Belloni
Guest: Adam Conover
Producers: Craig Horlbeck and Jessie Lopez
Theme Song: Devon Renaldo