Whatever You Do, Don’t Revive Wapping

All indications are the hatches are indeed being battened down as the WGA strike ends its first week.  The striking writers were emoboldened and energized by an unprecedented show of solidarity from sister unions at an event attended by an estimated 1800 members Wednesday night at the Shrine Auditorium.  As THE WRAP’s Ross A. Lincoln reported:

In a massive show of solidarity on the second day of the Writers’ strike, Writers Guild of America members were joined by representatives of other Hollywood unions at a rally held at the Shrine Auditorium in Los Angeles.

Participants at the event included members of the Directors Guild of America (DGA), the Screen Actors Guild (SAG-AFTRA) the stagehands’ union (IATSE), the Teamsters and more. In all, six other unions sent representatives to the event.

Images from the rally were shared by attendees, one of whom described the strike as “a war for labor itself.”

Yet, for as empowering as that experience was, the sobering response from AMPTP yesterday revealed that there is much, much more at stake besides fair wages and mini-rooms.   As KCAL News reported on its website this morning, there is as much at stake regarding technology and automation as anything else:

(T)he WGA called for protections against the rapidly-developing technology surrounding artificial intelligence. 

Their proposal states the studios “Regulate use of artificial intelligence on MBAcovered projects: AI can’t write or rewrite literary material; can’t be used as source material; and MBA-covered material can’t be used to train AI.”

The proposal was rejected by AMPTP. Studios countered with the offer of “annual meetings to discuss advancements in technology.”

Mark Harris, author of multiple books on American film history and husband of acclaimed playwright and WGA member Tony Kushner, said it’s reasonable for screenwriters to fear that studios might one day outsource some of their work to machines. 

“The producers’ response is, ‘We won’t give an inch on the possibility of replacing you with AI, but we’ll be happy to give you a yearly update on how that’s going,'”he told CBS MoneyWatch.

And if that plotline sounds a tad familiar, you’re probably familiar with what went down in the late 90s in Wapping, UK.  If you’re not, let THE GUARDIAN’s Jon Henley bring you up to speed, paticularly with the points of how Rupert Murdoch played his hand as to how he dealt with both the opportunity of technology and what was seen as the entitlement of union members:

(O)ne of the most bitter and violent disputes in British industrial history was in full swing.

“It was a war, and we lost it,” says Ron Garner, who worked in the Sun warehouse, in packaging and distribution. “We were led into a trap, and we played into his hands. I always say in my life there was a before and an after Wapping. It was a huge milestone, whatever way you look at it.”

The war broke out on 24 January 1986, when nearly 6,000 newspaper workers went on strike following the collapse of talks on News International’s plans to move its editorial and printing operations to a new plant in east London. Immediately, all were served with notices of dismissal.

Overnight, Murdoch then moved the Times, Sunday Times, Sun and News of the World to the new site, dubbed “fortress Wapping”, and hired members of the rogue Electrical, Electronic, Telecommunications and Plumbing Union to man it. He did this, he explained in a speech a few years later, because Britain’s powerful print unions “had a noose round the neck of the industry, and they pulled it very tight”.

In the mid-80s, most British newspapers were still produced using hot metal, despite the widespread use elsewhere of modern offset litho technology. Whereas Murdoch’s papers in Australia and America could be produced with four or five men to a printing press, he said, in London it took 18. Most were paid “full-time wages for part-time jobs”, and many held down second jobs on the side: cabbies, mechanics, even morticians.

As part of the move to Wapping, Murdoch demanded the unions accept flexible working, agree to a no-strike clause, adopt new technology and abandon their closed shop. They refused. Mass demonstrations outside the new plant were met by large numbers of police, whose methods – aimed at ensuring strike-breaking workers could get into the plant, and newspapers could leave it – were widely criticised as excessively heavy-handed.

But by playing unions less resolved that the printers against them, and by taking note of the efficiencies that have been proven elsewhere, in effect, Murdoch took down Fleet Street–at exactly the point in time when he began his rule of 20th Century Fox and created the FOX network properties that ultimately spawned his cable networks, including, yep, the one Tucker Carlson just got fired from.

Now Murdoch is a bit player in this particular battle, but among the newer players in this latest WGA war that were not around in 2008, 1988 or 1980 are those that run the likes of Amazon and Apple, technology companies to whom their video businesses are line items, but have far more cash and Street cred than the traditional studios whose platforms are under attack.  Just yesterday, Paramount Global was dressed down by a prominent investor, as Brian Welk of Indie Wire dourfully reported:

On Thursday morning, Paramount Global reported now having 60 million subscribers to its core streaming service, Paramount+. But by the end of a disastrous trading day (PARA -28 percent), one crippled by poor quarterly earnings and a major cut to shareholder dividend, equity analyst Steven Cahall of Wells Fargo suggested the company just quit streaming altogether at this point.  “Why is [direct-to-consumer]/streaming the wrong approach? Because it’s too crowded, meaning lack of scale. Only [Netflix] currently has healthy margins and it’s 7x Paramount+’s scale. We think [Disney] can get there too and it’s 3x [Paramount],” Cahall wrote in an investor note Thursday. “Alas, we see no willingness for these paths.”

And on that same earnings call, a top executive tipped their hand as to how and why the production ecosystem is so hell-bent on keeping their options open on AI, per THE WRAP’s Lucas Manfredi:

Paramount Chief Financial Officer Naveen Chopra revealed Thursday that Paramount Global is leveraging artificial intelligence for content localization, which has produced “very, very compelling economics.”

Content localization is the process of creating (or translating) specialized content for a specific region or international country.

So while the degree of existential challenge may not quite be as dire for exceptionally well-compensated CEOs as WGA members who are marching and lobbying every possible media angle to message their determination, it’s evident that the pressure they are under, relative to expectations, is closer than not to those who are marching and lobbing epithets against them.

When the door was left open for human replacements in Wapping, Murdoch took full advantage of it. It will be absolutely essential for this solidarity that will ultimately impact any form of production–finished scripts, unscripted TV, even news–to be maintained.  For as moral and righteous as we all may claim to be, we really only care if we have something to watch, see or enjoy.  As long as a British newspaper reader could get his or her fix of a Page Three girl, they really didn’t care if their neighbor laid out the headline, or if a machine did.   And, sadly, there is an entire generation of Chegg users emerging that appears to believe AI is credible enough for them to turn in an essay assignment toward their diplomas and degrees.  One can only assume they might be open to shows produced with them–and, sadly. there are all too many examples of shows that HAVE been written by humans that were rejected that a C-suite executive can cite as “would we really be disadvantaged if we tried that “compelling economic” approach?

There’s a trove of content still to be released, and already Netflix and Amazon are pivoting toward international productions.  FOX already has several animation projects in production.  It might help if those unions and workers were sought out to add to this arm-linking.

One final sobering thought:  The lawyer that just happened to be central to the plans that Murdoch implemented to shut down Fleet Street had a son.  That son is Peter Rice, who Disney unceremoniously let go eleven months ago and who, per the Ankler, is now starting to take meetings around town in pursuit of a comeback.  Aside from Rice’s credible track record, he certainly has a playbook of union-busting in his DNA that appears to be of increasing value.  Wherever he lands, watch out.

The writers and creatives and union workers are joined in solidarity.  Good.  You’re gonna need every helping hand you can get.  I’m offering mine, starting with this.

Until next time…


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