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Fighting for the right to write

Television belongs to writers in the same way that film belongs primarily to directors. We must root for them even if it means our favourite shows might take longer to return

Picket line for a Disney show on 10 May 2023 in New York City
Picket line for a Disney show on 10 May 2023 in New York City

“Save the cheerleader, save the world.” That was the tagline for the 2006 NBC series Heroes, the first superhero series to find audiences around the world. Comic-book-y storytelling and an ensemble of thrilling and disparate characters gave it a clutter-breaking start but season 2 got derailed by the Writers Guild of America (WGA) strike of 2007-08. Twenty-four episodes were planned, 11 were produced. Arcs were abandoned, characters were compromised, a spin-off miniseries was cancelled, and three months of writers putting down their pencils changed everything. What could have been the next Lost, in terms of a global must-see hit, merely got lost.

Hollywood film and television writers are on strike at this very moment— leading to a stop in all writing—and this strike may go on for longer. More than 11,000 members of the Writers Guild are picketing against the Alliance of Motion Picture and Television Producers, for a variety of reasons, including the use of AI (Artificial Intelligence) in writing rooms, and minimum staffing requirements, but also the most straightforward of reasons: a rise in the base payment structure, considering just how much streaming services have impacted the television landscape. Consider, as an example, the difference between 24-episode TV seasons and eight-episode streaming seasons. Fewer episodes mean shorter contracts, more time unemployed between shows.

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Most writers on your favourite shows do not get paid enough. Alex O’Keefe, one of seven writers on last year’s smash hit, The Bear (Disney+ Hotstar), went to attend the WGA award ceremony—where he won—while he had a negative bank account, wearing a bow-tie bought on credit. One major problem is that writers aren’t being paid enough by streaming networks—even when they make hits. Where syndication deals on American TV shows ensure writers get a percentage for rerun deals, ensuring some earnings for years once a show is a success, streaming services—which do not transparently disclose viewing figures and have different, debatable success/failure metrics—are offering much less to the writers and have refused to incentivise successful shows.

Hollywood creatives are siding visibly, and impressively, with the writers. Back in 2007, Steve Carell—the sought-after star of the American version of The Office—threw his weight behind the writers by refusing to show up on set even as a performer. On the first day of the strike, he didn’t show up to work and, according to The Atlantic, gave the most obviously made-up excuse: “Enlarged balls.” This week, director Christopher Nolan stood outside the Paramount Pictures office, holding placards with his brother, the writer Jonathan Nolan (creator of Westworld).

It is important to reiterate that the shows we love are driven by writers. They are building the world, the characters and the plot, and while occasionally a film-maker comes in to direct all the episodes of a prestigious show, they are still a technician, not a creator, unless they are part of the writing process. On most shows, different directors step in while the writers who have conceptualised the show stay the same. They are the ones holding the world together.

With every emergence of a new technology, writers have been forced to fight for new rights. In the 1960s, the WGA was compelled to strike once movies began airing on television, and they fought for cable TV in the 1970s and home video in the 1980s.

With streaming—as the subscriptions model is flailing and companies like Netflix don’t really know the way ahead—the writers are becoming a casualty of the industry’s uncertainty. In 2007, shows were truncated, episodes were reduced, channels were forced to live on reruns. Now, in a desperately competitive streaming market, the services can’t afford to slow down, so they have begun to bully the writers. Disney has mandated that showrunners for its bigger shows carry on working regardless of the strike, while companies like Amazon and Netflix are cutting existing long-term deals with top creators. David Simon, creator of the all-time great series The Wire, tweeted that his pre-existing deal with HBO has been suspended “after 25 years of writing television for them”. The tweet was accompanied by a video of Simon on the picket lines.

The 2007 strike had lasted three months. That was enough to make the television landscape feel like deserted badlands, with no new shows and new seasons, a world of repeats and reruns. They simply ran out of television. This cannot be the case now, as there is already far too much entertainment out there. Most audiences will not even notice any after-effects, at least not anytime soon. There is too much to watch and it has become less unusual for shows to take longer gaps between seasons. We aren’t running out of television this time.

The next time you watch an episode you love, note the names of the writers. or even change shape, or go away. Any price is small to make things more equitable. Save the writers. They make the cheerleaders.

Streaming Tip Of The Week:

There are nature documentaries all over the streaming landscape, but Chimp Empire (Netflix) feels quite original. Over four episodes, the British series takes a close look at a community of chimpanzees in Uganda. We get to understand their rigorous social, political and familial dynamics. Surprises abound.

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