During the six years he worked on “The Mentalist,” starting in 2009, Jordan Harper’s job was much more than a writing gig. He and his colleagues in the writers’ room of the weekly CBS drama were heavily involved in production. They weighed in on costumes and props, lingered on the set, provided feedback to actors and directors. The work took the better part of a year.
But by 2018, when he was working on “Hightown,” a drama for Starz, the business of television writing had changed considerably. The writers spent about 20 weeks kicking off scripts, at which point most of their contracts ended, leaving many to scramble for additional work. The task of overseeing the filming and editing fell largely to the showrunner, the writer-producer in charge of a series.
“On a show like ‘The Mentalist,’ we would all go on set,” Mr. Harper said. “Now the other writers have been released. Only the showrunner and maybe one other writer are kept on board.”
The separation between writing and production, increasingly common in the streaming age, is one issue at the heart of the strike started in May by about 11,500 Hollywood writers. They say the new approach requires more frequent job changes, making their work less stable, and has reduced writers’ incomes. Mr. Harper estimated that his income was less than half of what it was seven years ago.
While their union, the Writers Guild of America, has sought guarantees that each show would employ a minimum number of writers throughout the production process, the major studios said such proposals were “inconsistent with the creative nature of our industry.” The Alliance of Motion Picture and Television Producers, which bargains on behalf of Hollywood studios, declined to comment further.
SAG-AFTRA, the actors’ union that went on strike last week, said its members were also feeling the effects of the streaming era. While many actors’ jobs have long been shorter than those of writers, the union’s executive director, Duncan Crabtree-Ireland, said the “extreme level of performance management” by studios has led shows to break roles into smaller chunks and compress character story lines.
But Hollywood is far from the only industry that has presided over such changes, which reflect a longer-term pattern: the breaking up of work into “many smaller, more damaged, poorly paid jobs,” as labor historian Jason Resnikoff put it.
In recent decades, the shift has also affected highly educated white-collar workers. Large law firms have relatively fewer equity partners and more lawyers outside the standard partner track, according to data from ALM, the legal media and intelligence firm. Universities employ fewer tenured professors as part of their faculty and more non-tenured teachers. Big tech companies employ relatively fewer engineers, while they gather armies of temps and contractors to test software, tag web pages, and do low-level programming.
Over time, said Dr. Resnikoff, an assistant professor at the University of Groningen in the Netherlands, “you get this graded workforce of prestige workers and fewer workers” — fewer officers, more grunts. The writers’ experience shows how destabilizing that change can be.
The strategy of breaking complex jobs into simpler, lower-paying tasks has roots in meatpacking and manufacturing. At the turn of the 20th century, cars were produced mostly in artisanal fashion by small teams of highly skilled “all-around” mechanics who helped assemble a variety of components and systems – powertrain, axles, transmission.
By 1914, Ford Motor had repeatedly split and subdivided these jobs, spreading more than 150 men across a vast assembly line. The workers usually performed a few simple tasks over and over again.
For decades, making television shows was somewhat similar to the early days of car manufacturing: a team of writers would be involved in all parts of the production. Many of those who wrote scripts were also on set, and they often helped edit and polish the show into its final form.
The “around” approach had several advantages, say writers. Not least: It improved the quality of the show. “You can write a voice in your head, but if you don’t hear it,” said Erica Weiss, co-host of the CBS series “The Red Line,” “you don’t actually know if it’s working.”
Ms. Weiss said having her writers on set allowed them to rewrite lines after the actors’ table read, or rewrite a scene if it was suddenly moved indoors.
She and other writers and showrunners said the system also taught young writers how to oversee a show — essentially preparing apprentices to become the master craftsmen of their day.
But it’s increasingly rare that writers are on set. As in manufacturing, the task of making television shows is broken down into more discrete tasks.
In most streaming shows, the writers’ contracts expire before filming begins. And even many cable and network shows now seek to separate writing from production.
“It was a good experience, but I didn’t get to go on set,” said Mae Smith, a writer on the final season of the Showtime series “Billions.” “There was no money to pay for me to go, even for an established, seven-season show.”
Showtime did not respond to a request for comment. Industry analysts to show that studios felt a growing need to curb spending amid the decline of traditional television and pressure from investors to focus on profitability over subscriber growth.
In addition to the potential impact on the quality of a show, that change has affected the livelihoods of writers, who end up working fewer weeks a year. Guild data shows that the typical writer on a web series worked 38 weeks during the season that ended last year, compared to 24 weeks on a web series — and just 14 weeks if a show hasn’t yet been greenlit. About half of writers now work in streaming, for which almost no original content was made just over a decade ago.
Many have seen their weekly wages drop as well. Chris Keyser, co-chairman of the Writers Guild’s bargaining committee, said studios have traditionally paid writers well above the minimum weekly rate negotiated by the union as compensation for their role as producers — that is, for creating a dramatic universe, not just completing it. . narrow tasks.
But as studios severed writing from production, they pushed writers’ pay closer to the weekly minimum, essentially rolling back compensation for production. According to the guild, about half of writers received the weekly minimum rate last year — about $4,000 to $4,500 for a young writer on a show that got permission and about $7,250 for a more senior writer — more than a third. in 2014.
Writers also receive residual payments — a type of royalty — when an episode they write is reused, such as when it’s licensed into syndication, but say opportunities for residuals have narrowed because streamers typically don’t license or sell their shows. The Alliance of Motion Picture and Television Producers said in its statement that the writers’ most recent contract increased residual payments substantially.
(Actors get residuals, too, and say their pay has suffered in another way: The streaming era creates longer gaps between seasons, during which regular characters aren’t paid but often can’t commit to other projects.)
The combination of these changes turned the writing profession upside down. With writing jobs ending faster, even established writers must seek new ones more often, throwing them into competition with their less experienced colleagues. And since more writing jobs pay the minimum, studios have a financial incentive to hire more-established writers over less-established ones, hindering their ascension.
“They can get a very experienced writer for the same price or just a little bit more,” said Mr. Harper, who considers himself fortunate to have enjoyed success in the industry.
Writers also say studios have found ways to limit the length of their jobs beyond scrapping production.
Many junior writers are hired for a writers’ room only to be “fired” before the room ends, leaving a smaller group to finish the season’s scripts, said Bianca Sams, who has worked on shows including the CBS series “Training Day” and the CW program “Charmed.”
“If they have to pay you every week, at a certain point it becomes expensive to keep people,” Ms Sams said. (Junior writers’ salaries are tied more closely to weeks of work rather than episodes.)
The studios resented writers’ description of their work as “gig” jobs, saying most are guaranteed a certain number of weeks or episodes, and that they receive substantial health and pension benefits.
But many writers fear that the long-term trend is for studios to break up their work into ever-smaller pieces that are stitched together by a single viewer — the way a project manager might stitch together software from the work of various developers. Some worry that eventually writers may be asked to simply rewrite chatbot-generated drafts.
“I think the endgame is creating material in the cheapest, most piecemeal, automated way possible,” said Zayd Dohrn, a Writers Guild member who oversees the screen and stage master’s program at Northwestern University, “and has one layer of sophistication .creators take the cheaply generated material and turn it into something.”
He added, “It’s the way coders write code — in the most hackable way.”