from the consequences dept
As you’ve likely heard, earlier this week the WGA worked out a tentative agreement with the Alliance of Motion Picture and Television Producers (AMPTP) on a new contract that ended their months-long strike. By all accounts, this looks like a big win for the WGA, which is fantastic and long overdue.
The AMPTP seemed to recognize it had no leg to stand on and seemed to hope that its best strategy was to “wait out” the writers. That doesn’t appear to have worked very well. The new pay rates and guarantees seem like a big win for writers. The WGA negotiating team appears to have done a fantastic job on those fundamental negotiating points, and it’s a clear (well deserved) win for the writers.
Throughout the strike there was a lot of attention paid to the AI demands (perhaps even more attention was paid to that than the underlying economic questions), and I’m not quite sure how I feel about where things came down on that front.
As some have pointed out, in the end, the AI agreement can be read as a near complete capitulation to the writers, as it says that the producers can’t use AI to write a basic script and then hand it off to a human writer at a lower payscale to clean up. However, it does (and this is a really good thing) allow the writers themselves to figure out how to make use of AI for themselves as a productivity tool, which… makes sense. Empower the writers to figure out if it’s a useful tool, rather than thinking that the AI is going to produce anything worthwhile on its own.
One interpretation of all of this is that somewhere in the ~150 day strike, the producers had enough time to play around with AI and realize that it just isn’t able to replace writers like they appeared to hope it would do originally. As we pointed out here, though, AI can be a super useful tool in the writers hands to avoid having to deal with the drudgery part of the job, allowing them to spend more time on the actual creative act of writing. And so the framing of the agreement, at least, where it’s about empowering the writers to use the tools where necessary seems good.
But there was something that bugged me about the language of it, which writer/director/actor (and Techdirt podcast guest) Alex Winter points out in a new Wired piece: while the agreement is framed in a way that seems beneficial to the writers, it requires them to really trust the studios, as there appear to be lots of ways that they might get around what’s in the agreement. And the producers aren’t necessarily the most trustworthy folks out there. As Alex notes, the studios had been experimenting with AI prior to this and he’s not sure if they’ll just drop those initiatives. It might just be that they won’t tell writers what the AI did.
It’s hard to imagine that the studios will tell artists the truth when being asked to dismantle their AI initiatives, and attribution is all but impossible to prove with machine-learning outputs.
The other tidbit that a lot of people are celebrating is the agreement that streaming platforms will now share specific data on “the total number of hours streamed,” which has mostly been a secret. This was another big demand of the writers, mainly as part of their effort to get some sort of residuals setup going for streaming.
But, as a very interesting episode of the Search Engine podcast recently discussed, in the early days of streaming, the fact that streaming platforms didn’t share viewer data was seen as a benefit to many writers/actors/directors. It meant that they weren’t competing over numbers all the time, and weren’t focused on making something that would appeal to the widest possible audience.
That meant that a much wider variety of content was greenlit for some of those platforms, as they (especially Netflix, but also Amazon) wanted to have a really diverse set of creative shows and movies to entice people to pay the monthly subscription fee to see whatever they wanted. In that scenario, the specific numbers for any particular movie or show don’t matter as much, so long as there was enough diverse content available on the platform that it made users feel comfortable coughing up their monthly subscription fee. Indeed, that actually created incentives for more niche, quirky, diverse, wacky, experimental content, with no one ever needing to be concerned with “how is it performing?”
So, there is some reasonable fear that now that they will have to share the viewer data (privately to the WGA, not publicly), that could change. The incentive structure gets messed up a bit. There will be more incentives to create mass market content, and less ability to just create cool, different content that might appeal to a niche audience enough to get people to sign up for the monthly payment.
Now, a (reasonable!) retort to that is that the “we need all this diverse content!” made sense in the early landgrab days, but perhaps makes a lot less sense with the streaming market reaching some sort of saturation level where users are beginning to bail, and Wall St. is demanding more profits and less investment out of these platforms. If we’re already seeing streaming platforms pulling shows off the platforms for the tax breaks, perhaps this move away from supporting the weird and the wacky and the diverse was already going away no matter what.
Overall, though, it’s nice to see the writers get a strong contract that improves the underlying economics in ways that are important to their ability to make a living writing. I’m less sure that the AI language will be that impactful, though, and I’m curious to see how the incentives on the streaming side play out.
The one other bit I’m curious about: I’m kind of wondering if this experience will cause writers/actors/directors to increasingly look to route around the producers. Yes, for big productions they’re still necessary, but as tools for high quality moviemaking become increasingly cheaper and more widely accessible, I’m wondering if we’ll see a rise in more high quality self-produced works (or community produced works) that are then streamed not through the big subscription services, but elsewhere (YouTube, obviously, but it wouldn’t surprise me to see services like a “Substack-for-video” kind of thing pop up at some point).
After all, the producers can’t screw over the actual creative folks… if they’re not involved any more.