Most of us know that writers are notoriously underpaid. If you’re a television writer working alongside a staff of other writers, not only is your paycheck short-changed by big studios, but your work/life balance is essentially non-existent. And if you’re a writer who isn’t white, cisgender, or male, chances are you’re getting paid even less than your colleagues. The life of a writer is so famously miserable—with rare bursts of gratifying success—that TV and film writers have produced stories about themselves as entertainment. 30 Rock, for example, is a comedic exaggeration of what it’s like to work as a writer on a network variety show: all-nighters, hazing, egocentric studio execs, and all.
While 30 Rock became a beloved sitcom, especially on streaming platforms, viewers of the show highlighted the ways in which the series was guilty of mistreating writers like Donald Glover (Atlanta) who revealed that showrunner Tina Fey told him he was a “diversity hire.” 30 Rock also received backlash for putting white actors in blackface as a comedic gag about stereotypes.
In the wake of social justice movements that subsequently shined a light on the lack of accountability and prejudice in Hollywood, the WGA (Writers Guild of America) strike that lasted 148 days and ended on September 27, 2023, shouldn’t have come as a surprise. Despite a historic win that earned writers increased minimums, better health benefits, residual streaming bonuses, and protections against artificial intelligence, it’s clear that writers are still being undervalued by Hollywood institutions like the Television Academy’s recent decision to remove a writing category from the televised Primetime Emmy Awards on January 15, 2024.
Why did the WGA go on strike?
As mentioned above, writers often have to fight tooth and nail to get fair compensation for their work. Without it, production companies and actors wouldn’t have the material to create magic that gives us shows like Game of Thrones or iconic sitcoms like Friends. As streaming services continue to multiply—and merge—we are seeing more shows that are pushing the bounds of storytelling. But the underside of the streaming frenzy is the absence of residual checks that help support writers’ livelihoods. About a decade ago in the golden age of primetime network TV, shows had commercial breaks, which ensured that writers received a cut of the ad revenue every time an episode or film reran on air.
However, in today’s age of mass streaming, production companies get paid from subscription revenue, not commercials, meaning that writers’ incomes have decreased significantly. Writers showed up on the picket lines day after day to demand better pay and streaming bonuses, as well as protections from artificial intelligence that could be used as a tool to write scripts. A.I. poses a great threat to writers as it would enable studios to hire fewer writers, allowing them to reap more profit for themselves. Healthcare provisions were also a major issue on the table. It took over five months of negotiations between the guild and the AMPTP (Alliance of Motion Picture and Television Producers) to reach a fair contract.
What the new WGA contract ensures
After the 148-day strike, which was the second-longest WGA strike since 1988, a majority of guild members voted yes to ratify a new contract with the AMPTP. Writers will now receive a significant residual bonus for shows and films that are watched by 20% of a streaming platform’s subscribers within 90 days, including an increased foreign residual. The new contract ensures higher pay rates, healthcare benefits, and expanded development hours for writers in a writers’ room. The WGA also negotiated better protections against A.I. which cannot “be used to undermine a writer’s credit or separated rights.” Additionally, companies are legally bound to inform writers if material has been generated by A.I.
The fight is far from over
While the new three-year contract shows meaningful gains for writers, the fight for recognizing the days and nights TV writers put into making an entire season of a show is far from over. Given the recent Emmy category snub, which will remove the presentation of Outstanding Writing for a Variety Series, it’s clear that institutions like the Television Academy are still pissed at writers for delaying production for five months. In a letter protesting this recent decision, the WGA board said “We didn’t spend months on strike, fighting to receive the recognition we deserve for the work we help create, only to be pushed to the sidelines when it comes time to do exactly that.” The TV Academy has yet to respond.
As a result of the WGA and SAG-AFTRA strikes, which lasted more than 100 days, many film and TV projects had to shut down or postpone production. This means some of your favorite shows won’t return until late 2024 or early 2025, but we urge you to remember the people who are working tirelessly to honor the stories and characters you’ve fallen in love with. Great art often comes at the expense of great labor, and it’s time that writers are fairly paid—and celebrated–for their work.
Robinson, KiMi. “Hollywood writers officially ratify new contract with studios that ended 5-month strike.” USA Today. 9, October 2023.
Stenzel, Wesley. “Writers’ strike is officially over — here’s a look at the new WGA contract.” Entertainment Weekly. 26, September 2023.
Sun, Rebecca. “Study Finds Racial Disparity in Writers’ Compensation and Showrunner Opportunities.” The Hollywood Reporter. 24, May 2022.
Wanshel, Elyse. “Donald Glover Says Tina Fey Told Him He Was A ‘Diversity’ Hire On ‘30 Rock’.” HuffPost. 7, April 2023.