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Hollywood Writers Strike: Abbott Elementary’s Brittani Nichols Decries “Gig Economy” in Streaming Era

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Image Credit: Twitter/@WGAEast

Thousands of screenwriters behind Hollywood movies and TV shows are on strike as of midnight on Tuesday. The Writers Guild of America says its members are struggling to make a living, as rates have fallen and writers have less job security — even as the streaming era has led to an explosion in TV and film production. The strike is set to bring most TV production to a halt immediately, with some films also likely to be delayed if the impasse continues. The WGA previously went on strike in 2007-’08, which lasted 100 days and had a significant impact on the entertainment industry. “We are demanding that this industry be one that can sustain a career,” says Brittani Nichols, captain for Writers Guild of America West and a writer on Abbott Elementary. “The studios have devalued our contributions. They have shifted the industry to prioritize streaming while not … making sure that our pay reflects those changes.”

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This is a rush transcript. Copy may not be in its final form.

AMY GOODMAN: For the first time in 15 years, over 11,000 Hollywood TV and movie writers have gone on strike. The strike began at midnight Pacific time after contract negotiations failed. In a statement, the Writers Guild of America said writers are facing a, quote, “existential crisis,” in part because pay and working conditions have deteriorated in recent years due to the rise of streaming services like Netflix and Amazon Prime. The union said, quote, “The companies’ behavior has created a gig economy inside a union workforce, and their immovable stance in this negotiation has betrayed a commitment to further devaluing the profession of writing,” unquote.

The strike is expected to halt Hollywood productions and force late-night TV shows to go dark. They’ll run tape. On Monday, Jimmy Fallon, the host of The Tonight Show, voiced support for his writers ahead of the start of the strike.

JIMMY FALLON: I support my writers. But we have a lot of staff and crew that will be affected by this, you know, but they’ve got to get a fair deal. So, yeah, I’ll do whatever I can to support them. And hopefully there is no strike, and they can figure out a deal.

REPORTER: I hope not, either.

JIMMY FALLON: Yeah, I need — I need my writers. I need them real bad.

REPORTER: You need your writers. We need to laugh.

JIMMY FALLON: Yeah, I got no show without my writers.

AMY GOODMAN: That was Jimmy Fallon at the Met Gala, where Quinta Brunson also spoke. She’s the creator of the award-winning ABC hit comedy Abbott Elementary.

QUINTA BRUNSON: I’m a member of WGA and support WGA and, you know, them getting what we, us — us, getting what we need. So, I hope that — no one wants a strike, but I hope that we’re able to rectify this, whatever that means.

AMY GOODMAN: That’s Quinta Brunson, creator of the award-winning ABC hit comedy Abbott Elementary.

We’re joined now by Brittani Nichols, writer on Abbott Elementary who’s now on strike, a Los Angeles-based captain for Writers Guild of America West.

Brittani Nichols, welcome to Democracy Now! The strike is just hours old at this point. Also, congratulations on Abbott Elementary. What an amazing, fantastic show about the Philadelphia schools and the amazing teachers and the kids inside! But I wanted to ask you, starting with what’s happening right now and what you’re demanding as you go to the picket lines.

BRITTANI NICHOLS: We are demanding that this industry be one that can sustain a career. It’s sort of as simple as that. We have a consistently profitable business, but right now the actions of the studios are ones that seem like they only care about Wall Street. They’re chasing a rabbit they’re never going to catch, and in that pursuit, they’re running over the workers of this industry.

AMY GOODMAN: So, explain exactly how it works. You know, people watch these TV shows and movies nonstop but really have very little idea of what goes into making them. And why exactly streaming has — well, you talk about creating a gig economy. Explain what you mean.

BRITTANI NICHOLS: So, the studios have devalued our contributions. They have shifted the industry to prioritize streaming, while not following that up with the actions of making sure that our pay reflects those changes. A lot of the ways that writers are able to sustain a career are through residuals. That means that we’re taking part in that profit participation when a show gets reaired or a show gets sold or a movie gets aired. That’s when we get a little bit of that pie. And the amount of the pie that we’re getting in streaming is almost nonexistent.

AMY GOODMAN: And talk about the various streaming companies who you are actually negotiating with. Name names.

BRITTANI NICHOLS: Well, there’s Hulu, Peacock, HBO Max, Paramount Plus, Disney Plus, Apple TV Plus — a lot of pluses — Netflix and Amazon, I believe, are the big ones.

AMY GOODMAN: And explain the position they’re taking.

BRITTANI NICHOLS: I mean, they’re taking the position of rejecting our proposals and refusing to make a counter. With all of our major proposals, that is the feedback that we’ve gotten thus far. They have forced us to go on strike by not engaging. They sort of have said, “We do not care that you all can no longer make a career in this industry.” They just want to continue to get as much work out of us for the least amount of money. I think that that’s not something that’s unique to our industry. It’s something that has been happening and will continue to happen, and we’re standing up to it. We have to take a stand, or there won’t be television writers anymore. They will negotiate us out of existence.

AMY GOODMAN: And, Brittani, explain how the networks are connected to the streaming services. It’s not two entirely separate spheres.

BRITTANI NICHOLS: Yeah. So, the studios all own these services. I mean, they came up with it. Writers didn’t come up with these streaming services. They came up with them. That is a large part of the profit that they are now bringing in. And they continue to invest in these services. So, you know, every three years, you probably hear these studios crying poor and behaving as if they’re like these mom-and-pop businesses while they rake in billions and billions of profits, but they are the ones who caused this shift, and so they should be responsible for paying the workers that are now providing the product that they continue to turn out and put on these streaming services fairly.

AMY GOODMAN: In March, you shared a graph of “Writers Working at MBA Minimum.” ”MBA” stands for minimum basic agreement. Talk about the problems with compensation in your industry, especially for writers of color like yourself. You also tweeted, “Our minimum wage has become our ceiling.”

BRITTANI NICHOLS: Yes. So, it used to be that, I think 10 years ago, a third of writers were working at that baseline. And now half of our writers are working at that baseline. TV writer pay has fallen 23% when you adjust for inflation. So it’s really affecting every writer, from staff writer all the way up to show runners. It’s a product of this corporate cannibalization. And our decreased, not even just stagnant, wages are making it impossible for anyone to put a career together.

AMY GOODMAN: Can you talk about what happens next? I mean, for people who watch TV, the late-night shows will now go to tape. You had people like Colbert and others expressing support for the Writers Guild of America. Colbert is a member of the Writers Guild of America, showing pictures of all the writers, saying, “We can’t do it without them.” So, what happens now as you take to the streets, as you take to the picket line today across the country?

BRITTANI NICHOLS: Yeah, writers are the backbone of this industry. Nothing gets made without us. And I think that the studios will be in for quite a rude surprise when they realize that though they do not value us or our contributions, they do not have a product without us. We will be at the studios protesting — or, not protesting — picketing and, you know, joining each other in solidarity so that we can all go through this as a guild. We are committed to making sure that all of our writers, you know, make it to the other side of this, because we know there will be an other side, because we know we’re going to win. There is no industry without writers. We are the only generative people in this industry. Everything else is, you know, based on what is on that page. And if we’re not putting anything on that page, there is nothing that anyone else can do.

AMY GOODMAN: Can you talk about the shows that will be affected, or is it everything across the board? And how does this affect the later season, which, of course, is going to put a lot of pressure on the producers, the people who are demanding these shows? And what happened with deadlines? Did they move them up to get shows written before the strike?

BRITTANI NICHOLS: That was up to each individual writer, how much they were going to deal with people looking to have the materials turned in by yesterday. I know a lot of people wanted to turn their stuff in, because then, you know, if you complete your assignment, then they have to pay you. Even though we’ll be on strike, you will have completed your contract. So there was a lot of pressure on writers. And, you know, that shows exactly what our labor is worth. When we withhold our labor, people panic. People were scared that there wasn’t going to be anything in the pipeline to go out and create, and that’s true.

We are going to continue to withhold our labor, and that means everything from not taking meetings to not putting anything in that pipeline to not showing up for work. And that means that shows might get delayed. Abbott Elementary was supposed to go back to the room this week. We are a show that writes while we air. And so, if this strike goes on for a significant period of time, our show will not come out on time. And that could change the amount of episodes, which people, I’m sure, will be very upset about. It could change the air date. It could change a lot of different things, because there just will not be things going into that pipeline, there will not be us participating in anything that will bring profit to this industry, and that is going to cause a disruption. That’s what we’re counting on.

AMY GOODMAN: Finally, the 2007 strike, 2007-2008, went on for a hundred days. What did you gain from that strike? What did you accomplish?

BRITTANI NICHOLS: So, I was not part of that strike. I was, I think, still a teenager at that point. But one of the things that we gained was domain over the internet. That’s when all of these streaming services were first popping up, and, you know, YouTube was a thing. And what the studios were saying was that you all should not have any payment for anything that goes online. So, you know, we’re used to them saying that we should not have access to our fair cut of the pie, because they’ve done it every three years for the entirety of the existence of our union.

And if we had not made those gains, if we had not gone on strike and put our foot down back then, there wouldn’t be television writers now. We’ve already seen, you know, how important it is for us to stand up for ourselves, because could you imagine all of the streaming shows that you know and love, writers not making any money off of those? That was the future that the studios wanted. They want to continue to push us down and bully us. And it’s not even a matter of we don’t want it to happen. We can’t let it to happen, or television writers will no longer be a thing. Television staffs will no longer be a thing, because no one will be able to afford it.

AMY GOODMAN: And before we go, if you can talk about your own show, the amazing Abbott Elementary, about the Philadelphia teachers. The show’s first season was nominated for seven primetime Emmys, winning three. Why it is so important to see shows like yours, Brittani?

BRITTANI NICHOLS: I think that, you know, right now a lot of workers are feeling really downtrodden. I mean, I think that, you know, the issues that we’re facing are rampant all across this country. And a show like Abbott, where you’re seeing working-class people trying to do their best, it is a show where you can get some form of relief, some form of release. That’s important. People want to be able to enjoy the time off that they have from performing labor. And we’re lucky enough that our labor is what allows people to do that. And we want to get back to doing that. We want to get back to providing people an outlet, letting people have something to enjoy and have something to look forward to.

AMY GOODMAN: Brittani Nichols, we want to thank you for being with us, a Los Angeles-based captain of the Writers Guild of America West and a writer on Abbott Elementary.

BRITTANI NICHOLS: Thank you for having me.

AMY GOODMAN: Coming up, 60 years ago today, the Children’s Crusade in Birmingham, Alabama, began. Stay with us.

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