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Actors are demanding that Hollywood catch up with technological changes in a sequel to a 1960 strike

By David Arditi - Associate Professor of Sociology, University of Texas at Arlington (Special to ONME News)

As with many of the other strikes that have rippled across the United States over the past three years, this walkout is over demands for better pay and restrictions on their employers’ use of technology to replace paid work.


The actors’ strike began on July 14, 2023, after their union, SAG-AFTRA, voted to end negotiations with the Alliance of Motion Picture and Television Producers, which represents the major production studios. The main concerns of the union – which represents 160,000 actors and people in other creative professions – center around compensation on streaming platforms, such as Netflix and Amazon Prime, and artificial intelligence.


Screenwriters, who have been on strike since May 2, have similar concerns.


The two strikes have halted U.S. TV and movie production. Premieres are being canceled, and Emmy-nominated actors aren’t campaigning for those prestigious TV awards.


Rewind to the rise of TV

Ever since Louis Le Prince filmed the first movie, “Roundhay Garden Scene,” in 1888, actors have earned a living through their work being shown on screens small and large.


The first hit shows on TV aired in the mid-1940s, but actors initially earned far less from television than movies. Around 1960, with the advent of hits like “Leave It to Beaver,” “Beverly Hillbillies” and “Bonanza,” TV became very profitable. TV’s growing prestige and economic heft gave television actors newfound power at the contract negotiating table.


Actors demanded that their craft be compensated for TV shows about as highly as for their film appearances. Led by future President Ronald Reagan and Charlton Heston – who went on to serve as a National Rifle Association president – the Screen Actors Guild went on strike on March 7, 1960. Among that union’s top demands: health care coverage and residuals for movies aired on television, reruns and syndication.


Residuals are a form of royalty paid to actors when movies and TV shows air on television after their initial run. That can include reruns, syndication and the broadcasting of movies on television.


The actors union’s strike, which coincided then as today with a screenwriters strike, successfully negotiated a contract with executives that resolved the residuals conflict and secured health care coverage for its members.


That contract applied to broadcasting and, years later, cable TV.


But it doesn’t work for streaming, because streamed shows aren’t scheduled. Whereas “Friends,” a sitcom that initially aired on NBC, is available today on Max, formerly HBO Max, through syndication, and its actors receive relevant residuals, “Orange Is the New Black” originated on Netflix. Because it never runs on a different platform via syndication, the actors in its cast earn paltry residuals in comparison – even though viewers are still watching the show’s seven seasons.


Hwang Dong-hyuk, the creator of “Squid Game,” forfeited all residuals when he cut a deal with Netflix. It earned Netflix nearly US$1 billion, but Hwang got none of that bounty.


Fast-forward to 2023

As explained my 2021 book, “Streaming Culture,” streaming has fundamentally changed the production and consumption of both TV and film while blurring the lines between them.


People consume different types of media through subscriptions and streaming technology than they do while watching broadcast TV and cable television. Actors and writers are concerned that their compensation hasn’t kept up with this transformation.


And the actors who are on strike argue that the formulas in place since 1960 to calculate residuals don’t work anymore.


Residuals paid for roles in broadcast TV shows are based on the popularity of those programs, with actors earning far more for hits like “Grey’s Anatomy” and “NCIS” than for duds. Hit shows can have a second life on streaming platforms and result in actors getting paid again for that earlier work.


In contrast, streaming residuals pay a flat rate for foreign and domestic streams. A streaming original film or TV show earns a set amount for residuals in its domestic market and second set amount for foreign markets. This fee doesn’t change based on popularity or the number of times a production is streamed.


But streaming has changed more than residuals for actors and writers. It has also transformed how TV shows are made.


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