LOS ANGELES - Watching TV can be a solitary pursuit, or enjoyed with a partner or a couple of friends. Writing TV, on the other hand, is a group effort, with a roomful of writers bouncing ideas off one another and sharing the workload.
At least, that’s how it used to be, before streaming upended the traditional network model. These days, studios want more shows with fewer writers - and it’s a major point of contention in Hollywood’s writers strike.
“We want to preserve a pipeline of creators who are coming through here, and writers who can make the next hit,” said Jonny Gomez, 36, a Writers Guild of America member who has written for shows such as “This Is Us.” “It feels like we’re fighting to keep television a viable industry.”
In the days of traditional dramas or sitcoms such as “Seinfeld” or “ER,” networks would typically order up a 22-episode season, give or take, and as many as a dozen writers would get hired to write the scripts, come up with jokes and plot points, and work on set with actors if questions arose during filming. Writers weren’t working year-round, but they were making enough to support a family in Los Angeles. And the way the process worked, writers were exposed to all aspects of producing a show, including spending time on set, which many say was an invaluable learning experience.
Those days are over, and no one thinks they’re coming back. Already, studios have been using “mini-rooms” with four or five writers to produce shows, albeit with fewer episodes. But writers say the workload is just as burdensome, and because they’re employed for a shorter time, they have to be prepared to hunt for their next gig - even as they eye a future where they fear writing jobs will be harder and harder to come by with the rise of artificial intelligence.
“I fear a future in which they can only hire one writer,” said Kathryn Borel, 44, who has worked as a writer and producer on multiple shows. “They’ll have an AI, you know, churn out a script based on a large language model. . . . And then they’ll pay one writer to rewrite it and make it human.”
The Alliance of Motion Picture and Television Producers, which represents studios, declined to comment for this article. In a proposal made public in August, it offered protections around AI, winning some praise from the WGA on the issue. At the same time, the studios proposed writers’ rooms with a minimum of three writers - including the “showrunner,” the writer who in some cases created the show and is in charge of creative direction and budget priorities. That is a non-starter for the some 11,500-member WGA, which proposed writers’ rooms with a minimum of six writers and the ability to hire more as needed.
The studios have previously criticized the demands on writers’ rooms. “These proposals require studios to staff a show with a certain number of writers who will be hired for a specified period of time that may not align with the creative process. If writing needs to be done, writers are hired, but these proposals require the employment of writers whether they’re needed for the creative process or not,” the studios wrote in a May statement. “While the WGA has argued that the proposal is necessary to ‘preserv[e] the writers’ room,’ it is in reality a hiring quota that is incompatible with the creative nature of our industry.”
Minorities and younger writers say they’d be the first to go if the sizes of writing staffs were dramatically cut, because they tend to be newer hires with less experience in an industry historically dominated by White men. It could be difficult or impossible for them to find careers in Hollywood, and losing them would eliminate needed perspectives from writers’ rooms - not to mention contribute to Hollywood’s well-documented struggles with diversity.
“Having more voices in a room means more diverse voices in a room, where you have people with a variety of experiences, backgrounds and ideas,” said Ariel Levine, who started out as an assistant on “Better Call Saul” and worked her way up to a staff writer. “You end up having much more honest and well-rounded stories and characters when you have people who can look at things differently.”
And, yes, writers insist, for those who have watched “30 Rock”: There’s a lot more accomplished than fart jokes and ordering lunch.
“I will say I’ve been in some very fun rooms, and we laugh a lot when we’re breaking story,” said Christina Strain, using the industry term for figuring out a story and mapping out plots. “The room can get animated” - but in service of jokes and storylines viewers ultimately will enjoy, said Strain, who has worked on several shows, including as executive story editor on “The Magicians.”
Writers think the upshot of the studios’ demand is that they will be pushed to do more with less by executives beholden to shareholders rather than the creative process. If writing staffs consist of three people, as the studios propose, few will take a chance on a relative unknown, and many talented writers could get cut out of a process that no longer makes room for learning or growth.
“I think specifically with young writers, far and away the people who most often have to either repeat the staff-writer level or even drop back down to being assistants are minorities. And that happens far more often for Black and Brown writers than any other writer out there,” Gomez said.
Gomez recounted working on a recent project about a deaf school, which has not yet gotten picked up, where the showrunner had to fight management to be able to hire a deaf writer and a Latino writer - the demographics that dominated the school in question. Not every showrunner would have done that, and if the current contract talks result in strict limits on hiring writers, they might have less incentive to try. The result could be scenarios like a team of White writers penning a script about a school with deaf and Latino students with no one from either group present to share their perspectives.
Marc Wanamaker, a Hollywood historian, says writing rooms developed from the smoke-filled rooms on studio lots where legends like Sid Caesar and Mel Brooks worked together on variety shows. But just as studios evolved with technology and audiences, he said, writers are confronting wholesale changes in the industry.
Now that audiences expect to be able to stream whatever they want, whenever they want, more adaptation is in order from all corners, he said.
“The writers traditionally have been old-school. For years, they didn’t change at all until just recently,” Wanamaker said. “And I think they’re finding out they’re having to be part of the real world, and they’re scared.”