The One Troubling Detail in the Writers Guild’s New Deal

The WGA got the best deal possible for its members. But it looks like studios weren't willing to budge on one notable non-negotiable.

HOLLYWOOD - NOVEMBER 20: Writers march on Hollywood Boulevard in support of the Writers Guild of America strike on November 20, 2007 in Hollywood, California.
Photo: Matthew Simmons | WireImage via Getty

As of 12:01 a.m. PT on Wednesday, September 27, the writers strike is over.

Though the ratification of the Guild’s fresh bargaining agreement with the Alliance of Motion Picture and Television Producers (AMPTP) won’t be official until all members vote affirmatively on it in the weeks to come, that is basically just a formality. The WGA’s negotiation team has secured a three-year Minimum Basic Agreement (MBA) with studios that they are rightfully very proud of.

The full details of the WGA’s agreement can be found on the organization’s website. Ultimately, the WGA received $233 million per year in additional commitments from the AMPTP, which is less than the $429 million it sought but more than the $86 million studios initially offered. In addition to that $233 million, the WGA successfully negotiated new rules for the industry that will make writing a far more secure profession. These include: strict guidelines for the use of A.I. in scriptwriting, the enshrinement of paid writers’ rooms for TV productions that want them, a bigger piece of the streaming residual pie, and much more. This appears to be a great deal for the WGA that honors the risks that its members took and the sacrifices they made in going on strike.

Still, no agreement is perfect. Any deal made with the AMPTP was bound to come with a crucial concession or two. In the case of the WGA’s MBA, it’s pretty easy to identify which detail could cause issues later on: streaming viewership numbers.

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In the lead up to the eventual agreement, it was widely reported in in trade publications like Deadline and The Hollywood Reporter that the AMPTP’s one big “non-negotiable” was the use of A.I. Based on the terms of the MBA as we interpret them, it seems as though that may have not entirely been the case. These A.I. rules are eminently reasonable, which makes it a clear win for the WGA. It seems likely, however, that the studios had another non-negotiable item entirely in mind. They quite simply did not want their streaming data to ever see the light of day.

In section 7 of the WGA’s report on the MBA, guild representatives address a point they call “Streaming Data Transparency.” That section reads, in full:

“The Companies agree to provide the Guild, subject to a confidentiality agreement, the total number of hours streamed, both domestically and internationally, of self-produced high budget streaming programs (e.g., a Netflix original series). The Guild may share information with the membership in aggregated form.”

The Guild is presenting this as a win, which it technically is for their membership. Previously, writers for streaming services had absolutely zero access to viewership numbers of the shows and movies they had written. Not having this crucial bit of data made it all but impossible to negotiate more favorable terms with streamers. How can one advocate for more pay from Netflix if Netflix doesn’t clue them in on the actual value of their work?

Thankfully, that issue has been remedied with this agreement but it’s not yet possible to declare that it’s fully resolved. The MBA notes that the Guild can access the information only under a “confidentiality agreement.” The Guild can only then pass that information on to its rank and file in an “aggregated form.” Without the public or any other independent arbitrators involved, writers will have to trust both their guild representation and the streaming services themselves to provide them with accurate, unbiased information. Additionally, the language of this point suggests that the Guild will not have access to the full suite of sophisticated data points that streaming services often use to make programming decisions.

One of the biggest appeals of streaming as a technology for corporations is its ability to provide important demographic information regarding its user. A streaming service can view one of its properties as a success or failure based on a wide array of sophisticated statistical breakdowns. Knowing the total number of hours stream of self-produced high budget streaming originals is a useful tool for writers to wield in negotiation. It just doesn’t put them anywhere near to equal footing as their production counterparts.

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As writer Justin Halpern notes in his MBA-reaction thread, this agreement doesn’t mean the end of the labor struggle for the Writers Guild. Guild members will have to both get accustomed to the terms of the new deal and stay vigilant to assure that their corporate collaborators are correctly following the terms of it. As they do so, the issue of streaming data transparency is one that they’ll want to keep a close eye on. And so will we as consumers. Because if the streamers are that desperate to obscure the actual details of their viewership information, the only logical question to ask is why?

Hopefully it won’t take another work stoppage in the future to find out.