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Strike looms as the contract between Hollywood writers and studios is set to expire

LEILA FADEL, HOST:

Tonight at midnight, the contract between the Hollywood writers and major studios will expire.

A MARTÍNEZ, HOST:

They've been negotiating for a new three-year contract, but the Writers Guild of America say their members are prepared to go on strike if their demands aren't met.

FADEL: Joining us to talk about this is NPR's culture correspondent Mandalit del Barco, who's in Los Angeles.

Hi, Mandalit.

MANDALIT DEL BARCO, BYLINE: Hi. Good morning.

FADEL: Good morning. So what are the writers asking for?

DEL BARCO: Well, you know, the last time the writers went on strike, it stopped Hollywood production for 100 days. And that was in 2007. Back then, they were asking for better compensation when their work went on DVDs and internet downloads like iTunes. Now this time, they're trying to anticipate new technology. They're concerned about the use of AI to create content. And one of the big demands is to get paid more when their work shows up on streamers like Netflix and Amazon.

I spoke to Brittani Nichols, who writes for the ABC show "Abbott Elementary," and she told me that, between seasons, she used to be able to live off residuals she got when the networks reaired an episode she wrote. She got half her original writing fee each time. But now when her episodes are sold to the streamers, she gets just 5.5% of her writing fee.

BRITTANI NICHOLS: You're getting checks for $3, $7, $10. It's not enough to put together any sort of consistent lifestyle. It can really be a real shock 'cause, you know, we get our residuals in these green envelopes. You get a green envelope; you're like, all right, here we go. Hopefully something good's in here. And then, sometimes, you just get a stack of checks for seven cents.

DEL BARCO: Seven whole cents, Leila.

FADEL: Oh, my gosh. So what are the working conditions like for these writers?

DEL BARCO: Well, you know, writers in Hollywood are basically gig workers with a union, and they also have to constantly look for their next job. The streaming studios are asking for series that last 8 to 10 episodes a season rather than 22 episodes they used to do on network TV, and that means less work and less money for the writers. You know, I talked to some writers, even those on hit shows, who say they're not living some kind of lavish, Hollywood dream lifestyle. They're basically broke in between gigs. Here's Brittani Nichols again.

NICHOLS: Though I'm on a job that is pretty good right now, the next job that I have, it could be right back to a really sort of bad situation where I'm, again, struggling to pay rent. And that shouldn't be the case for someone who's, you know, going to be a decade into their career, who's worked for an Emmy-winning television show. I don't think anyone would look at my career and say, oh, that person still has to worry at this point. But that's just where things are right now.

DEL BARCO: You know, Leila, other TV writers told me that they're basically asked to work for free in what are called mini rooms, working alone on scripts that may or may not get greenlit. No guarantee they'll be picked up into the official writers room, even if the show does get picked up.

FADEL: Now, Mandalit, are the studios saying anything?

DEL BARCO: Well, the CEO of Netflix, Ted Sarandos, said that they need to prepare for the worst, in other words, a strike. He said streamers are stockpiling scripts. And Netflix, he says, has a large base of upcoming shows and films from around the world. Reality shows are being prepared, so those don't need any scriptwriters. And if there is a strike, one of the first places viewers might notice is on late-night TV shows, where the jokes are written that same day. Come tomorrow, writers might be on the picket lines.

FADEL: Mandalit del Barco, NPR's culture correspondent in Los Angeles.

Thanks so much.

DEL BARCO: Thanks, Leila.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC) Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Leila Fadel is a national correspondent for NPR based in Los Angeles, covering issues of culture, diversity, and race.
As an arts correspondent based at NPR West, Mandalit del Barco reports and produces stories about film, television, music, visual arts, dance and other topics. Over the years, she has also covered everything from street gangs to Hollywood, police and prisons, marijuana, immigration, race relations, natural disasters, Latino arts and urban street culture (including hip hop dance, music, and art). Every year, she covers the Oscars and the Grammy awards for NPR, as well as the Sundance Film Festival and other events. Her news reports, feature stories and photos, filed from Los Angeles and abroad, can be heard on All Things Considered, Morning Edition, Weekend Edition, Alt.latino, and npr.org.