It's been more than a month now since the thousands-strong membership of the Writers Guild of America has taken to the streets in support of fair pay and treatment for TV and film writers. The list of negotiation points the group is fighting for includes better streaming residuals, an end to financially unsustainable mini-rooms, and concrete limitations on the usage of artificial intelligence tools in scriptwriting.
It's that final point that has perhaps made the most headlines during the course of the ongoing strike, as the WGA seems to be one of the first major unions in America attempting to curb the rising A.I. takeover that seems to be a threat to real human jobs.
Today in Austin, WGA leaders spoke at ATX TV Festival for a panel called "WGA on Strike." /Film's Ryan Scott was in attendance as former WGA East President and "House of Cards" creator Beau Willimon moderated the panel's discussion of A.I., a technology that WGA members agreed needs to be limited in artistic mediums like theirs. Greg Iwinski, a member of the WGA East negotiating committee who has written for Stephen Colbert and John Oliver's late shows, explained how the WGA initially approached conversations about AI with the Alliance of Motion Picture and Television Producers, the group representing companies like Amazon, Netflix, and Disney.
Writers Don't Want To Feed The 'Plagiarism Machine'
After Willimon notes that A.I. wasn't initially in the WGA's Pattern of Demands, Iwinski explains that the WGA decided to broach the topic with the AMPTP after members approached the negotiating committee at each meeting, "saying 'you've got to talk about this.'" Currently, he says, the WGA's position dictates that A.I. is "not going to be used as source material." As they told the AMPTP: "It's not gonna be something we rewrite, and our writing doesn't feed into this plagiarism machine."
While corporations regardless of industry recently seem eager to make A.I. happen by any means necessary, the programs used to generate ideas have already been proven to heavily plagiarize both images and words. They've also been used to sexually harass women and, in one case, even made up fake court cases that landed a lawyer in hot water. In short, A.I. is powerful, and writers (or any employees, really) are smart to want to put a lid on that power while they can.
According to Iwinski, the WGA's attempt to reach an understanding with the AMPTP about the use of AI didn't turn out well. As he puts it:
"They said nothing. Until at the very end, they said, 'We don't want to limit ourselves on something we could take advantage of later.' Which is like you saying, 'Hey, Beau, why do you have that can of gasoline?' And he's like, 'I might need it.' Okay! I'm not less worried.'"
New Media, Again
Audiences in attendance laughed at the vivid comparison (which A.I. probably couldn't have come up with — just saying), but Iwinski continued with a frank assessment of what might be going on behind the scenes when it comes to Hollywood's sudden push to embrace A.I. tech. "I believe that executives are very susceptible to vaporware," he explained, "and there's some tech guy coming in going, 'Hey, A.I. is actually gonna be able to fly us to the moon!'" The problem is that A.I. "doesn't really need to" deliver on its promises "because, like crypto, if I just need to get all your money then it doesn't matter if it doesn't pan out in the end — as long I avoid the SEC."
In short, the WGAE negotiating committee member says AI might "promise the moon and deliver a mountain." But even writers who seem willing to see the potential good in the technology agree that it still needs to be addressed in the next WGA contract.
"The Vampire Diaries" co-creator Julie Plec — who represented WGA West at the panel alongside "Grey's Anatomy" writer-producer Zoanne Clack — told attendees, "I have compassion for the powers that be that are like, 'We don't even know what this means. Why would we cement rules in it?'" Yet Plec points to the 2007 writers' strike, in which WGA members left work for 100 days for the right to a cut of what would soon become the streaming world, as an example of why it's important to get ahead of these conversations.
"There is a little bit of a [fool me once], fool me twice thing happening because we got heavily gaslit in 2007," Plec says, paraphrasing conversations in which the WGA were questioned about what they were even fighting for in the new media landscape.
'They Are All Getting Our Work For Half Price'
Plec echoes many reports about the current state of the industry when she says that the "small gains" won in 2007 aren't enough now. "Cut to now 15 years later, [streamers] are the behemoths of this industry," she says. "They are all getting our work for half price and that's us having won gains in 2007."
Continuing the panel's trend of much-appreciated honesty about the state of the industry, Iwinski pointed out that if executives don't actually care about television, they won't mind if A.I. makes terrible output, so long as "it keeps people from canceling the subscription." As he puts it, "The threat of us being replaced is not that they're ever going to match our quality. It's going to be that our bosses don't care."
In the end, the WGA makes its bottom line clear: A.I. is not a replacement for human writers, and no matter how execs hope to use it, it's important that its power be contractually limited. As Plec puts it, "If we don't get something codified in language that a human being needs to do our jobs, we will never get that language and we will never have any protections."
Until the AMPTP comes to the bargaining table on A.I., it seems likely that the Hollywood shutdown will continue, and might even gain new supporters as other major guilds' contracts come up for negotiation. "I hope that SAG fights really hard for it," Iwenski says. "I hope the DGA does as well, but for us, it's not something that we're willing to budge on."
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