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Writers Strike Getty 1.jpg

Being a TV Viewer Right Now Is Intolerable: The Writers’ Strike Wants to Fix That

By Kayleigh Donaldson | TV | May 5, 2023 |

By Kayleigh Donaldson | TV | May 5, 2023 |

Writers Strike Getty 1.jpg

This week, the Writers Guild of America officially went on strike. After negotiations for increased pay and new employment protections failed, everyone put their pens down and took to the picket lines. A staggering 97.85% of voters (reportedly 78.7% of eligible members cast ballots) supported the move to authorize a strike, a sharp reminder of how much the industry needs change.

The world of entertainment has evolved vastly since the last writers’ strike, which irrevocably changed the industry. This is the streaming age, a time of Too Much TV and more platforms than ever for #content. There are literally dozens of new scripted series premiering every month, with the seeming promise of greater diversity among their creative teams behind and in front of the camera. On the surface, it looks as though we’re in a time of plenty for writers. The reality is far more depressing. Residuals have all but evaporated thanks to the streaming model, with giants like Netflix infamous for exacerbating the problem. Writers’ rooms are shrinking in size and pay is down. The threat of AI is looming, with studios eager to embrace any kind of technology that will take humans out of the creative process entirely.

One key area the WGA is keen to bring attention to is the total lack of transparency from streaming services over viewership numbers, a process that has left many writers and showrunners unable to negotiate for fairer pay. They cannot get viewership-based residuals for platforms that hide their numbers, something places like Netflix are notorious for doing. Even the biggest stars on the service don’t get access to that data. The Alliance of Motion Picture and Television Producers, with whom the WGA negotiated, rejected this proposal and refused to even make a counter. This is an important reminder of how wildly different the world of entertainment is now compared to only five or six years ago. It’s not just the creators who feel the stifling restrictions of this development. Viewers do too, and it’s made being a fan of TV, casual or avid, f**king intolerable.

A recent Rolling Stone piece detailed how fans of the Netflix series Shadow and Bone were fighting for a third season renewal by gaming the system. Viewers were encouraged to host viewing parties and rewatch the new season at least five times a week in the hopes of maintaining its spot as the number two series on the platform. Viewers were told to simply let the show play on mute in the background to drive up the numbers. This isn’t a unique phenomenon. I’ve lost count of the number of showrunners I’ve seen take to Twitter to beg people to do the same to stave off cancellation. When even Neil Gaiman has to get fans to treat The Sandman like a TV screensaver, you know the system is designed to make everyone fail.

This is a sinister weaponization of the cancellation process on the part of streamers like Netflix and Amazon, who are notoriously opaque about their business practices and what is required for a show to be successful. Instead of being excited to watch a new show, viewers are immediately pressured to rush through a series the moment it drops for fear that their contribution otherwise won’t count. Where is the pleasure in that? And this doesn’t even get into the not-so-subtle forcing of fans to act as unpaid marketing through the sheer stress of fighting for a new season.

It shouldn’t be a tedious grind to enjoy a TV show. You shouldn’t have to feel so much pressure with this stuff, but now you’re so painfully aware of the labour required just to keep a show on the air. It puts you off of committing to a show, even if it seems like something you’d enjoy. Imagine: a new series is dropping on Netflix and it’s the kind of thing you’re into. But you’re busy for the first few days of its premiere, so you know you won’t be able to binge-watch it immediately. Then you have all the other shows demanding your attention, and you know how often Netflix cancels stuff you love. You know that the platform really only cares about viewership numbers from the first three weeks of release, and that’s just too much responsibility. Soon, watching it doesn’t seem worth your while, so you don’t.

The gamification of fandom is already a bad phenomenon. Turning your passion for pop culture into a numbers game where the only thing that matters is the hours watched or trending topics tweeted is anti-art in every conceivable way. Once upon a time, you were supposed to enjoy TV, to take pleasure in the stories the medium told. Now, it feels as though the corporate powers that be barely care about such things unless they can be harnessed to achieve further growth on a line graph. The new commodification of art is built on a fallacy that can and will destroy thousands of people’s livelihoods. It already has. I’m more aware of that than some, as a writer who makes her living online and has seen countless publications crumble because they couldn’t meet impossible growth goals quickly enough for their media-illiterate Silicon Valley bro investors.

Netflix wants infinite growth. So do Amazon and Disney and every media monopoly in town. Regardless of how often this idea fails, they want nothing but endless profits. That means paying everyone else less if they pay them at all. It means shredding artistic integrity into absolute nothingness. It means buying up websites, strip-mining them for parts, then sacking the people who made readers care in the first place. We know this because we see it happen all the time: Buzzfeed News, Funny or Die, The AV Club, any number of independent game developers, Gawker Media, all non-AI artists, the publishing industry, the music industry, the healthcare industry… Growth is finite by design. How can Netflix hope for infinite growth when the inevitable endpoint of this plan is a world where literally everyone has a subscription to the platform? Where do they go from there?

Art and humanity are connected, so deeply intertwined that it should be seen as an abject disgrace that so many want to remove the latter from the equation entirely. The writers want to regain a sliver of control over their work, to ensure the survival of their craft as the industry becomes increasingly beholden to corporate stooges who see everything in terms of profit and CEO bonuses. The current system benefits nobody except for those who make eight figures a year and delete entire films for the purposes of a tax write-off. The writers are fighting for everyone else, including viewers. So, don’t be a f**king scab, and stand in solidarity.