Since May 2, the Writers Guild of America has been on strike, shutting down late-night talk shows and delaying production on future episodes of streaming and network television. With other unions showing solidarity and individuals refusing to cross the writers’ picket line, many productions have already paused, and the situation for studios and streamers could worsen as the Directors Guild of America and the Screen Actors Guild begin their own contract negotiations.
We have seen similar strikes before. Over the past century, Hollywood filmmakers, creatives and other industry employees have formed unions — including the Writers Guild of America (WGA), Directors Guild of America (DGA), Screen Actors Guild (SAG-AFTRA), International Alliance of Theatrical Stage Employees (IATSE) and portions of the Teamsters. These groups, which now boast a membership of over 350,000 workers, have secured a wide range of worker’s rights, from health care to pay raises, in this historically exploitative industry.
Today, these organizations once again face the challenge of gaining adequate compensation in the face of unregulated technological advancements. But while the streaming technology now hindering writers’ pay may be a new challenge, the issue at the heart of the matter is not: residuals, or payments to cast and crew members for the rebroadcasting of recorded performances. Residuals were introduced in the 1930s when audio recordings were made of performances and performers were paid a nominal fee to be in the studio in case technical difficulties required a live version instead. Since then, unions have continually had to fight for the regulation of new recording technologies to secure payment for rebroadcasting rights.
In the postwar period of the late 1940s, Hollywood faced many challenges. Congressional investigations of communism in the movie industry coincided with competitive threats from the burgeoning field of television. The income of studios plummeted when they had to give up their cinemas after a 1948 Supreme Court antitrust decision. Legal battles and financial insecurity lasted through the 1950s as the studio system slowly ended.
In the early 1950s, studios began to see television as a new way to generate income by allowing multiple rebroadcasts of kinescope recordings. The unions entered negotiations to secure residuals on reruns, and by 1952, they went on strike to reserve rights in the face of this entirely new exhibition model.
Kinescope, alongside early forays into magnetic videotapes for television, inspired then-SAG executive Ronald Reagan to lead industrial action against television producers. SAG was particularly concerned with the use and rebroadcasting of commercials. The strike lasted 2½ months, with SAG winning nominal but reasonable jurisdiction over — and residuals for — advertising reruns.