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It’s a beautiful, sunny morning in Manhattan’s Hell’s Kitchen on Wednesday, but the demeanor is anything but. All along West 33rd Street and 10th Avenue, frustrated Writers Guild Association Union members and their supporters donned signs as they marched the picket line in demand of higher wages.
In a move to protest against unfair pay practices (in part due to the current streaming era), thousands of unionized writers initiated a strike on Tuesday morning, effectively bringing television production to a halt. The decision to strike was made after high-stakes negotiations between a leading guild and a trade association representing some of Hollywood’s biggest studios failed to reach an agreement, resulting in the first walkout in over 15 years.
The aim of the strike is to compel the Alliance of Motion Picture and Television Producers to return to the negotiation table and work towards reaching an agreement that satisfies both parties. The writers hope that the negotiations will result in a new Minimum Basic Agreement with terms that are valid for three years. Through the strike, the writers are hoping to secure a deal that reflects the value of their work, especially while navigating the new world of streaming services and the concerning rise of artificial intelligence that some fear will eventually replace writers or limit job availability.
The signs held were mostly similar in both appearance and content. “AI wrote this sign, that’s why it isn’t funny,” one protester’s picket sign read. “AI? More like A-bye,” said another. The frustration is prevalent not just in the sea of highly held white posters all throughout the block but in the faces, chants, and stories coming from the writers they’re being held by.
After six weeks of negotiation with the Alliance of Motion Picture and Television Producers, the Writers Guild of America announced that its members would walk off the job starting at 12:01 on Tuesday. The Writers Guild represents over 11,500 people, and without them, most of the shows and movies available today would not exist.
It’s been 15 years since the last writer’s strike in 2007, and During the 100-day work stoppage, California’s economy alone suffered a loss of $2.1 billion. Based on the proposals chart from the WGA, the writers’ proposed changes would result in a total gain of approximately $429 million per year. The counter-proposal presented by AMPTP, on the other hand, would only result in an increase of approximately $86 million per year.
This comes about in an era where AI-powered “chatbots” are on the rise and naturally, concerns for how this will be changing the industry itself are as well. In a 2023 SXSW conversation with Laurie Segall of Dot Dot Dot Media, Greg Brockman, the president and co-founder of ChatGPT, named Game of Thrones as one of his inspirations for what the future of AI could be capable of. Words which could undoubtedly be unsettling to hear as a writer already knocked down by the constant changes brought about by streaming services.
“I think that is going to be what writing will look like,” Brockman said, referring to the versatility of the chatbot and how it harbors the ability to set the framework for nearly anything its user can think of. “I think that’s what coding will look like, I think that’s what business communications will look like, but I also think that is what entertainment will look like. You think about today, where everyone watches the same TV show, and maybe people are still upset about the last season of Game of Thrones. But imagine if you could ask your AI to make a new ending that goes a different way and maybe even put yourself in there as a main character or something, having interactive experiences. I think every aspect of life is going to be sort of amplified by this technology.”
There’s something that feels rather dystopian about referring to artificial intelligence being used to rewrite the work of writers, even for a hypothetical personal project. This is not lost on the writers, as the fear of chatbots taking over the scriptwriting process or being used to rewrite is also a large reason for the strike.
According to various screenwriters, the simplicity of the prompts that ChatGPT requires, combined with the extensive content it can produce, is part of the problem. An arrangement of simple terms such as a genre, setting, or even lead actor could produce a first draft of a project. The draft would then be re-written or edited by a writer at a far lower wage. This, seemingly, is one of the better-case scenarios. However, this technology is evolving fast. These chatbots tend to have a “learning” feature, where they can grow accustomed to terms and characters to create more in-depth projects. With how quickly this technology is evolving, how long could it really be before the need for this human writer to edit Ai powered scripts isn’t needed at all? Though the WGA’s copyright laws recognize a writer as a “person,” therefore ensuring that only the work done by a human is able to be copyrighted, the ways that this may affect the already ever-changing industry is worrisome for many.
And though the aforementioned position is still a job, it’s a reflection of how much this could alter the industry and eliminate the preexisting positions, similarly to how the current streaming era has been throughout the past few years. One of the major issues with the extremely popular modern streaming model is that it often operates on a “buyout” system, where writers are paid a lump sum upfront for their work, with no additional residuals or payments. The elimination of residual payments ensures that writers who work on streaming services will receive less compensation in the long run compared to traditional TV or film production models.
It’s difficult to see where AI will take the industry, but one thing is for certain, it could never come close to the unfettered talent of the hardworking writers, both in the writing rooms and on the picket line as we speak.
Words by Sydney Hargrove
Sydney Hargrove is a current Media Studies student at Hunter College. A New York City native currently living on the Upper East Side, she got her start in the journalism field through social media management and has explored the world of on-camera hosting and on the scene reporting since then. She has appeared in the Wall Street Journal, The New York Post, and The New York Times and has worked as an On-Camera-Host and contributing writer for The Knockturnal for three years.