“The Transformation of ‘The Idiot Box’: How Writers Influenced Art and Fueled Success for Streamers”

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WGA Members Go on Strike

On Tuesday, members of the Writers Guild of America (WGA) walked a picket line around the Bronson Sunset Studios lot where Netflix leases space for production and offices in Hollywood. This strike is due in large part because television no longer provides a solvent livelihood for many of the people who write its content.

The Golden Age of Television

Ten years ago, American television was in its Golden Age. Premium channels had made “Game of Thrones” and “Homeland” huge hits. Virtually every basic cable channel had followed AMC’s “Mad Men” into the prestige TV business. The TV networks might be worried about competition, but their top series continued to draw millions of viewers each week.

Growing as a secondary platform to the exploding industry, Netflix had just gone all-in on original content with “House of Cards,” and Amazon was moving forward by offering Prime subscribers the ability to “vote” a list of pilot projects. Little did we know that streaming was about to change everything.

The Tyranny of Ratings Overthrown

The tyranny of ratings was overthrown by a more populist and, frankly, mysterious system, involving old indicators – Emmys and magazine covers – and new ones – recap culture, TV blogs, Comic-Con, social media and, over time, algorithms like Netflix’s.

The Rise and Fall of Writers

At first, writers seemed to benefit most from TV’s explosive success. They were hailed by name and treated with rock star status. More importantly, writers who hadn’t worked for HBO, Showtime, or FX felt liberated from Nielsen ratings, censors, executive notes, and over-the-top seasons. But as streaming services raked in billions, many of the people who wrote the shows that created the last Golden Age of television saw their remunerative gold turn to silver.

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For many television writers, finding a full-time job in their chosen profession has become even more difficult than it had been before television took over the world. Streaming only exists because television has become a wonder of the modern world. That will not continue if studios and streaming platforms expect established writers to work as freelance writers, without offering them any opportunity to become established screenwriters.

Protecting the Writers Who Built the Industry

Streaming took advantage of the Golden Age of television to change the world. But if we don’t want TV’s boomtown to become a ghost town, we’ve got to protect the writers who built it. There’s still gold in those hills, but it won’t matter much if there’s no one to dig for it.

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