Audio Recording by George Hahn
Forty years ago, 190,000 British coal miners went on strike. The U.K. government, which owned the mines, met none of the strikers’ demands. The strike ended a year later with the union gravely weakened. Over the next few years, the British coal industry dwindled to nearly nothing.
This month, TV and movie writers walked off the job, demanding higher pay and protections from technological disruption. I believe the Writers Guild of America, like the U.K.’s National Union of Mineworkers back in the ’80s, has incorrectly assessed the situation and will exit the strike severely impaired.
There are real differences between the miners’ and writers’ strikes. The miners’ strike was controversial within the union itself, and some regions refused to take part. In contrast, the Writers Guild voted 98% in support of this action. The media is fawning over the writers, as are Hollywood stars. Actors who command millions bringing coffee to writers who make $2,000 per episode of Jimmy Kimmel Live are just adorable. “We stand with you … please don’t touch me.” Anyway, the differences won’t make a difference.
None of that solidarity matters, as British mining and scripted entertainment share one thing: Both were/are in structural decline and on the wrong end of a tsunami of alternatives. U.K. coal production peaked in 1913, and by the 1970s an erosion in demand had morphed into a collapse. The problem wasn’t a lack of coal — the British Isles sit on a 300-million-year-old layer of carbonized jungle — but changing consumer preferences and surplus competition. Electrical generation shifted to cleaner North Sea natural gas, even as imported coal was undercutting Newcastle’s finest on price.
The situation was so bad, the U.K. seized the mines to keep them running, as the operations were losing hundreds of millions of pounds per year. What prompted the final faceoff by the striking miners was existential — the planned closure of dozens of mines. They screamed at change, but progress wouldn’t listen.
Today, entertainment is no less relevant than energy was in the 1980s. But we’re increasingly getting it from somewhere other than a Hollywood writer’s room. The rise of reality TV (birthed by a writers’ strike in 1988) created an entire genre that relies less on writers. Cops, one of the first big reality shows, was conceived as content that could be produced during the strike.
Live sports are more popular than ever — 94 of the top 100 telecasts in 2022 were sporting events. Apple paid $2.5 billion to stream Major League Soccer and is rumored to be readying a bid for the Premier League. There’s more of it to come: MLS, XFL, WNBA, PLL, hockey in Las Vegas. Even within the narrowing genre of scripted TV, there’s the accumulated competition of history: Friends wrapped in 2004, but in 2015 Netflix paid $118 million to infinitely stream all 236 episodes.
The big threat isn’t other TV … it’s other than TV. Social media is, at its core, unscripted entertainment. YouTube has 122 million U.S. users every day, and YouTuber MrBeast has three times more subscribers than Hulu. But the biggest hands around the windpipe of scripted TV belong to TikTok. Short-form video, written and produced by amateurs, floods our lives by the gigabyte, endless in volume and variety — commanding 95 minutes a day of our attention.
The younger the viewer, the more they prefer TikTok to television. Stranded on a desert island with Wi-Fi and only one screen, two-thirds of Gen Z say they’d choose TikTok over the entirety of television and streaming. Put another way, writers shouldn’t be picketing outside studios in Los Angeles, but Bytedance HQ in Beijing. Also, the culprit isn’t some cartoon-villain studio exec, but your nephew who’s never had cable and prefers to spend 45 minutes scrolling TikTok to paying $6.99 a month to watch The Witcher. He’s never heard of Stephen Colbert.
It’s tone-deaf to ask Dad for an increase in your allowance the week after he’s lost his job. Comcast’s gross margin has melted from 27% to 4% in the past five years. Disney’s, from 16% to 4%. Warner Bros. Discovery, once a cash-generating titan, posted $7 billion in losses last year. Paramount lost $511 million last quarter on streaming and is cutting its workforce by 25%. Netflix is the only streamer that’s been able to increase its margin, but subscriber growth has hit a wall — so it’s cutting $300 million in costs. Of its existing viewership, 100 million are using passwords borrowed from friends/siblings/kids.
For Sale: Writer’s Room, Barely Used
Similar to the miners watching the mines close, writers have felt winter coming for years. Adjusted for inflation, the median writer-producer salary has declined 23% in the past decade. Much of this is due to streaming. While a traditional 22-episode broadcast program guarantees writers 30 to 40 weeks of work, the average 10-episode streaming series only guarantees 20. And streamers pay writers little or nothing in “residuals” — payments received when a show goes into reruns and syndication, once a huge source of security in an insecure sector. Studios are also getting craftier about relying on junior writers, reducing the number of writers on a show, and barring writers from working on other shows for longer periods. Ten years ago a third of writers worked at what’s called the “Minimum Basic Agreement,” the minimum amount studios have to pay. Today half do.
In anticipation of the 1984 miner’s strike, Thatcher built up massive coal reserves, key to breaking the strike. The staggering overinvestment in content that streamers engaged in over the past decade hammered profit margins, but also built a reservoir of shows consumers can’t see beyond. I watch a lot of TV, but my Netflix queue will outlast the writer’s strike fund by a decade.
Q: What do late-night TV and downtown office space have in common?
A: Neither will recover.
Few kids grow up dreaming of being a miner. One sign of how fucked up our nation is? The most cited career American youth aspire to: “influencer,” a creator who runs ads during their content. Entertainment professionals have always had to contend with bus and planeloads of hopeful young people arriving in LA and NYC. Now those millions arrive each day on people’s phones.
The One Where a Robot Takes Your Job
On our Markets podcast this week, Prof G Media analyst Mia Silverio interviewed some of the picketing writers in New York. And they assured her that what they did, the magic of their creativity, was a distinctly human trait, not something AI could replicate. Their union isn’t as confident as they are, though. One of the sticking points in the negotiations has been the use of AI. Specifically, the union wants to bar the studios from using it. While the writers have a valid point asking for a form of residuals from content that informs large language models/generative AI, asking studios to not use AI has the same probability of succeeding as demanding they give up texting and air-conditioning.
As with near-every technological innovation, AI will inspire job losses in the short run and then, over the long term, net job creation. Automation destroyed jobs on the factory floor, but at first we didn’t see the jobs that heated seats and car stereos would create. There will be a plethora of new service providers in the streaming business that leverage AI. In addition, there is usually a “winner takes most” effect. A decent writer gets culled, a great writer earns more. In sum, AI won’t take your job, but someone who understands AI will.
Pro tip: While you’re on strike, let your Netflix queue grow and play with Notion AI.
The writers strike and its outcome will boil down to incentives and leverage. The studios need a pause that cauterizes their unsustainable spending. However, the break would need to be multilateral so no one company grabs share by maintaining those higher levels of investment. Enter the gift to end all gifts, providing the studios a recalibration of the economics of streaming without the risk of losing share. “I just don’t feel a sense of urgency to end this strike,” said every studio head.
When I moved to New York, I began practicing yoga, believing I’d meet hot women and find inner peace. Neither happened, so I took up boxing. My trainer was “blown away” by my hand speed and suggested I enter a tournament. Twenty seconds into the first round of my first bout I was distracted by bright lights. They were the ceiling lights staring down on me, as I was flat on my back regaining consciousness. I had grossly miscalculated the parties involved and their relative strength. In 6 to 12 months, Hollywood writers will see the light. A light that inspires one question: What the fuck just happened?
Life is so rich,
P.S. Post is a social platform for real people, real news, and real conversations, founded by Noam Bardin. Also, I’m there (disclosure: investor). We publish No Mercy / No Malice on Post as well as sending it by email — you can see it there every week by following me.
P.P.S. If you’re a leader worried about a pending recession, we’re offering 100 free seats to our upcoming workshop: Recession-Proofing Your Business. Grab a seat before they’re gone.
I don’t know where you get the statistics I sports interest NBA and NFL, not sure about MLB have all hurt their brands with their insistance on getting Involved in woke politics WNBA has been on life support from day one the USFL will be short-lived again only thing that has showed increased interest is soccer & not to mention you have juggernauts life me Taylor Sheridan churning out excellent content one after the other episodic will.survive & thrive especially the way this country is going it’s all you can afford to do
The problem with making a comparison to coal mining, is that the Writers Guild of America, West membership has rapidly grown, not shrunk, in the years leading up to the present strike. A quick examination of the Guild’s LM-2 filings shows that it reported a 2015 total membership of 22,159. By 2022 that number was 26,350. The number of scripted television series grew at a comparable rate, numbering 422 in 2015, but 599 in 2022. https://www.statista.com. Scripted entertainment is a growing, not contracting industry, which generally enhances the value and bargaining power of labor. Even if the studios manage to moderate their competition to own the streamingverse, it will likely be another 50 years before a comparison to British coal mining is predictive or even illustrative.
Your “Tiktok vs Streaming” preferences chart seems to assume that people’s taste and choices in entertainment don’t change at all as they grow older. Do you watch, listen to, and do all the same stuff you did in middle school or high school? GenZ will grow up and want to watch more than short videos on TikTok (or its future equivalent). And kids burn out on social media use, too.
Growing up in the UK during the miner’s strike, your narrative misses a couple of key points. First, the absolute hatred of Margaret Thatcher of anything publicly owned. Over the course of a decade she oversaw the transfer of numerous public services to private hands (telecoms, nat-gas, electric, trains, public housing, etc.) The coal-mining industry was fiercely opposed to such privatization, which put it in her cross-hairs. Second, the Thatcher government’s attitude toward protesting and civil rights, cemented in Northern Ireland policy, and facilitated by a corrupt police force at every level. If the miners succeeded, it would make the police look weak, and that was not an option for her. The overtime bill for policing the strike was humongous, but the “win at all costs” mentality was at play, so the police got their way and in the process everyone’s rights were eroded. Sure, with 20:20 hindsight the miners turned out to be on the wrong side of history, but that doesn’t make what Thatcher did “right” in any way. There could/should have been a slower and more organized transition away from coal, but that would mean looking weak, which is not in the Tory vocabulary.
The piece is not really about the miners’ strike and the relevant references are accurate enough to make the comparison. In any event, your ‘key points’ are hardly objective. There’s an equally robust narrative that says the mining union set out to bring down the elected government of the day and enforce its will on miners who wanted to continue to work through large scale intimidation and violence, and ultimately failed in both.
Disney’s gross margin is 33%.
Comcast’s is 37.6%. macrotrends.net/stocks/charts/CMCSA/comcast/gross-margin
I’ve tried all manner of googling to try and bring up these gross margin %s you’ve quoted. Did you mean operating or net margin? Because even then it’s not matching up https://www.macrotrends.net/stocks/charts/DIS/disney/profit-margins
Warner Brothers’ losses were related to acquisition-related intangible assets and restructuring expenses – poor investments rather than anything to do with actual creation of content or performance. Their CEO was paid $39m. Most of the losses, in fact, can be tied to their merger, which is entirely unrelated to the core work product you are attacking here. They’ve mismanaged their business model. Why aren’t you attacking them? Hey, what happened to your CNN+ show? Why aren’t you ripping them for that? Why aren’t you noting that the reason that they’ve been able to make more money is BECAUSE STREAMING MEDIA HAS BECOME MORE VALUABLE?
You also fundamentally misunderstand the WGA’s reasons for wanting studios to regulate AI – it’s because they know that hollywood will gladly train an AI using their words to make a substandard version of their work that’s “just good enough” to shove out there.
Also it sounds like your boxing trainer scammed you
I think some of your broad strokes here are right — the studios really needed this strike in the short term — but this analysis critically flawed.
Streamers are drowning in their own overproduced content, but content goes bad over time. There are a handful of evergreen shows and movies (Friends, South Park, Etc.) but other than those, people tend to not even think to try shows that are older. That’s why Roku was able to buy the Quibi catalog for next to nothing. It’s just filler. Disney+ and HBOMax have been taking shows DOWN to get out of their license agreements and save some money. The effects of the strike won’t be seen by the consumer for a while, but when they do, expect subscriber churn — already an enormous problem — to get exponentially worse. Especially in a recession.
Second, you are badly misjudging what TikTok is to people, especially young people. It’s a replacement for channel surfing and lightweight talk and variety/sketch shows. Young people are more engaged with scripted series than ever. Look up the demos on services like Sony’s Crunchyroll. Mostly young people.
This was not your best analysis.
Very interesting but very American. Soccer not Football: Corona not Covid.
Miners strike. Fought to crush unions and promote cheap imports despite high unemployment.
Cable TV minimal. Internet and satellite dominant. Waiting for your take on impact of Russian invasion of Ukraine and impact on world prices for gas and oil industry and the mega profits.
The point about AI reminds me of an interview I saw with the great composer & conductor John Williams. Back in the Sixties, studios where prohibited from reusing soundtracks, therefore, he and his orchestra would re-play the openings for “Lost in Space” and other shows, over and over again.
That said, will the writers themselves also be prohibited with experimenting with AI?
“…YouTuber MrBeast has three times more subscribers than Hulu.”
Is that not a massive, disingenuous false equivalence? I know the word ‘subscriber’ is the same in both cases, but an idle click on a YouTube subscribe button for no cost, potentially from multiple accounts per sentient user, is a very different thing from a paid subscription involving credit card details.
You have a good point that attention is shifting to new platforms, but it’s disappointing when the data is presented like this.
Besides having a heinous premise, you’re raucously ill-informed on your topic.
I’m not going to spend enough time to pick things apart as much as is warranted, but a teeny tiny example is your use of the term “unscripted” for so-called “reality” TV, and Tik-Tok.
“Reality TV” is only called “unscripted” in the industry because it serves the corporations that don’t need to pay writers union wages for it – simply because it falls outside the bounds of negotiated contracts. If you think there are no writers involves, well, then you’re a rube. Which is fine with them (and possibly fine with most of the viewers, who don’t think they’re watching scripted material).
You should be ashamed at the lack of rigor involved in this so-called analysis.
This borders on techo positivist nonsense. Technology changes things, sure, but you’re assuming the current state of the market is natural or unchangeable when it’s the direct outgrowth of policy decisions. Government structures markets, whether actively or indirectly, and the last thirty years have allowed consolidation/vertical integration, predatory pricing, and obscured price signals via lack of ratings in streaming. A simple though not easy solution: split distributors from studios, require streaming numbers, reintroduce competition more or less. Streaming did not have to mean monopoly.
That you see these changes as natural or inevitable as opposed to constructed and reversible speaks to your lack of engagement with the underlying market issues. Markets don’t exist in a state of nature. Dad is not the right analogy, and neither is coal. Hollywood doesn’t work because of private equity style consolidation and hollowing, not some Frankenstein tech, a Terminator we can’t stop. It’s a key American industry, and we need to structure it better. This is a choice, not inevitable.
There’s a lot great in what you write here but a big flaw in assuming that young people don’t and won’t want storytelling. You even left out the fact that reality TV employed writers from the very beginning- those stories didn’t just happen. Stranger, Stranger, I guess you are saying writers should just give up the fight, and start living on food stamps while they write massive streaming hits – really? You’ve attacked them but ignored any prescription.
Regrettably, the only thing AI seems to be developing for is the replacement of human workers with non-human workers. Our government will never understand it well enough to impose the proper restrictions and the developers couldn’t care less about any of the unforeseen social upheavals its rampant deployment will create (looking at you, social media). Send your kids to trade schools, moms and dads. AI probably won’t be able to fix a leak or build a dormer (on the other hand, who knows?…)
Good read. AI is coming; Today, it’s the writers; I hope we are taking a cue from your “NY reality check 😅!
Cheers, Prof G.
I have to preface by saying, unfortunately, I agree with all your points about the writers being at a severe disadvantage.
It should surprise no one the far reaching effects of AI, while still in its infancy, are steaming ahead to replace human labor in several skilled capacities.
However, as a traditional list, I fear the influence of AI on culture and arts, be it television, movies, music and actual visual art will be devoid of a visceral connection and appreciation of actual human creation. Sure, ChatGPT can produce a treatment for a novel, original television series, but it’s actual human writers and the performers who amplify the writer’s words into creating content that’s engaging, compelling and exceptional. I fear the “human” experience will slip away due to the outsourcing of AI. Regretfully, I don’t have any viable solutions to rectify this encroaching trend.
Trust Prof G to of course, navel gaze and see this story as vis-a-vis America only. An important factor to this development is the globalization of content. It’s not just about ByteDance taking eyeballs away from HBO, . It is about American content losing cultural hegemony.
Once upon a time, American content reigned king in ROW on prime time belts and there’s a whole generation of Gen Xers who are non Americans but grew up on quintessentially American content. Americans television went around the globe faster than anything else because culture doesn’t have trade restrictions. But that Gen X’s television consumption habits today however have changed a lot. They don’t just watch American content ALONE – they have become consumers of global content – from India, China, Korea, UK, Scandinavia – thanks in a way to Netflix and an easy acceptance of sub titling (because amazingly the rest of the world actually speaks another language besides English usually)
Globalisation, America’s trade clarion call, has come back to bite it in the ass because other countries have now started to export their content, giving consumers options aside from American content that once dominated screens, small and big.
Awesome read.. one point to me is so important which everyone moving forward should embrace… its not AI that will take the jobs but rather someone who understands AI.. I see a lot of consultants in near run popping up to teach various industries on how to adapt and use AI in thier day to day.
Very good Scott. This is the first write up I have seen that looks at the economic fundamentals and discusses how changing technology and market conditions impact the chances of success for the striking screen writers. It is to bad that most other media outlets due not provide same level of intellectual though process.
In 1988 around 3200 screen writers went on strike, in 2023 around 11,500 screen writers are on strike. This is a big increase but still a really small number of workers. Your graph shows coal miners at a peak of 1.2M in the UK down to almost nothing today. That was a huge change for the UK. Will technology and market conditions cause a big drop in the already small number of screen writers, probably not. From producers perspective (management) this is about power and control and as you point out they will win. I could go a couple years just catching up on streaming content that I have not yet watched and I am not alone on this.
Shame these kids don’t want to get into mining. The industry that had to be dragged kicking and screaming into the 21st century has now embraced tech in almost every part of the value chain. And with the climate change push for EVs, everything outside of coal is being scoured around the globe.
Fantastically written read as always. Thanks Scott.
My two fav lines:
It’s tone-deaf to ask Dad for an increase in your allowance the week after he’s lost his job.
Few kids dream of being miners when they grow up.
The writers are correct, AI cannot really bring human experience to bear in a script. Not the AI of today, anyway, as the author Nick Harkaway pointed out in his Substack, Fragmentary. I have no doubt the AI of tomorrow, or of the day after, will be able to do that, however. I’m less sure there will be an equal number of jobs created by that than Prof G is. One AI can turn out copy for multiple presentations to a degree no human can, and once the AI code’s written how many folks will it take to constantly tweak it? (Or, will another AI do that?)
It’d be naive to think this genie can be put back in the bottle. That doesn’t mean we don’t need guardrails for how AI gets developed and employed, however, which Prof G has said he’s all for doing.
AI relies on existing scripts. At some point AI generated scripts, like rearranging the same furniture, will become repetitive and boring.
Your assertion assumes AI would never be updated to reflect current human experiences as they evolve. This is where smart writers who will leverage AI to their work, come in. Like Prof said, only writers who refuse to use AI will lose their jobs.
The writers (and soon the actors) strikers will contend that their business cannot be that bad if their CEOs still rake in $100M, which is certainly separate from how well the media business are faring.
To me, the problem with AI is that is simply magnifies and mirrors the profit motive of those who program and supervise the human programmers. I do agree that live programming will become more of what dominates entertainment, but that’ll be controlled by the sports entities themselves. It could be very feudal where the existing networks give their billions to these sports but then those sports dictate how those networks distribute their programming. I could even see the English premier league, the National Football League, Formula 1, FIFA’s World Cup, and the Tennis and Golf majors dictate what their holders can say about their sports outside of the broadcast. It’s very Godfather like, but if Galloway is right there’s probably no where else traditional media can go to make their profits. Would not surprise me in five years that the news divisions are strictly online only and you may not see a 5:00 pm national news broadcast anymore.
If your correlation of the coal miners to writers is to hold true, how about the coal companies to the streaming/broadcast companies. Do you expect them to go broke? If not, do you expect them to use AI to write everything, or to get TikTok banned and become aggregators of on line videos?
Any stats on total hours spent by GenZ vs Boomers on the TikTok vs. Streaming. How about total hours spent viewing broadcast stations back when Boomers where the age of Gen Z?
Zero sympathy for Hollywood writers. None.
When I hear from these people, they are condescending, complacent, uninformed.
Sometimes good news – for the rest of us – happens to awful people. Pace
You’re a fucking idiot, dude
Can’t wait for you to die.
When do you “hear from these people”? Because you clearly couldn’t cut it in Los Angeles, just based on how weak and scared the tone of your comment is. Keep sucking up to your boss, though. He really values you.
One striking writer friend made signs and contributed clever quips for them. Whenever one of his signs makes it into the news – being carried by fellow strikers – he’s quick to tell us. Thinking maybe he’s discovered an important new side hustle.
Years ago the Tonight Show writers went on strike and Johnny Carson after supporting then could no longer turn down the $100K per night he was contracted for by NBC. It was the hight of Watergate and so his monolog was built around reading the daily news to Ed and the live audience. With his talent for improvising off the page he had us all in stitches. He would end his monolog with ” who needs writers you can not make stuff up that is this good” The Tonight Show got through the strike. Writers do not need a union to ensure pay amd safety like the miners did. They need imagination, talent and ideas to build a story. It’s a competitive world out there with many more venues platforms for story telling than TV or traditional movies…telling a good story will garner pay.
“It’s tone-deaf to ask Dad for an increase in your allowance the week after he’s lost his job.” Timing is everything. With the glut of streaming content the writer’s should have read Sun-Tzu and selected a more limited demand. The writers might have been successful if they had just written seditious scripts and not confronted management head-on.
As a onetime fringe Hollywood screenwriter who’s firmly on the side of the WGA in this strike, I can appreciate the sense of comparative historical analysis you bring to this. However, the writers will win this strike, not only because they must, but also because the ACTORS about to strike, too. The SAG-AFTRA board just unanimously agreed to set a vote for strike authorization to its membership. IIRC, their deal is up in June.
So for all those who think SUCCESSION can write itself through generative AI and not the lived experience of decades of accumulated institutional knowledge of how to make good TV (and without our varying childhood traumas, heartbreaks, humor, humanity, etc. of a writers room), how long do you think the studios can go without actors saying those words? CGI, anime/ation, and reality TV will only get you so far when it’s midseason in January 2024 and no new creative shows are on the horizon…
As Scott skillfully weaves his coal mining narrative into today’s writer’s strike, perhaps it’s worth noting that the original name for what we call AI today was “Data Mining.”
As usual, a thoughtful, enjoyable article.
Writers are an integral part of an entire industry. if there’s no need for writers, then there’s no need for actors, camera operators, studios, producers… I doubt that TikTok or AI will replace the need for writers altogether, but it is fair to acknowledge that perhaps the world needs less of them right now, which is why their comp dropped to this point. I think the public (including kids) still craves new and original content that is professionally produced.
I’m not sure kids will crave something that they’ve never experienced. The vast majority of kids don’t read books (exception is manga), experience video content in 30-45 seconds or less, and have not sat through anything other than an animated movie. Their brains are calibrated around infinite choices funneled through algorithmic hierarchies that promote one creator over another. I’m not sure that they will ever be interested in sitcoms, or late night talking heads, or a 3 hour superhero movie, let alone an art house film or other more esoteric dramatic works. Just like the news media has devolved into rehashing Twitter arguments and providing unnecessary commentary on viral videos, the writers may be in for a rude awakening. Streaming has diluted the pool of movies and series to the point of over-saturation with little thought to quality–streaming services are only as good as the latest drop of content each week. And we see how unsustainable that pace has been. Most of what I’ve seen that was created exclusively for streaming is insipid at best. The writers are either having their great work thwarted by studio execs who want simple, easily digested, and just as easily forgotten movies and shows, or there are too many bad writers working today. And don’t get me started on the endless recycling of past IP and nostalgia bait that is the hallmark of corporatized, bottom-line driven “art”…
Nice analysis of the UK coal strike. Corollary: Margaret Thatcher was unfairly demonized for taking that stand; and Ronald Reagan was justified in firing the Air Traffic Controllers. I guess we have the same perspectives then 😉
This is a very interesting article. Well done. Oh, and you are not some form of AI are you??? 🙂
Insightful and prescient piece (as always), Scott. Your boxing analogy (and experience) mirrors mine, recalling a moment in summer camp when I marched with great confidence into a match and found myself on the floor in less than a minute, wondering “What the heck just happened?” (I was nine years old and more polite.) Anyhow, the great philosopher Mike Tyson put it best: “Everyone has a plan, and then someone punches you in the face.”