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Chief WGA negotiator weighs in on tentative union deal


At 12:01 this morning, TV and movie writers were free to get back to work after almost five months on strike. Union leaders at the Writers Guild of America have reached a tentative deal with studios. It includes bumps in pay, restrictions on the use of artificial intelligence and minimum staffing for TV writers' rooms. Now it's up to the writers themselves to ratify the contract in the coming days. And to hear more about what is in this deal, we have Ellen Stutzman on the line. She's the chief negotiator for the WGA. And we should note, before turning to her, we did ask to interview a studio head or a representative from the Alliance of Motion Picture and Television Producers, but, so far, they have declined. So we have Ellen Stutzman. Welcome.

ELLEN STUTZMAN: Hi. Thank you.

CHANG: Thank you. All right, so top question for you, Ellen - thousands of people went without pay for five months. Give me one thing in this deal that you think made all of that worth it.

STUTZMAN: Well, the truth is, there are so many things because what this membership managed to do was negotiate an exceptional contract that addresses issues across our membership. And I'll just mention them briefly for screenwriters, for television writers, for our comedy variety writers as they move their work to streaming. We got a breakthrough agreement on a payment for success in streaming for original programs - something the companies said they would never do. We also got data transparency - so all that closely held information about how well shows do will be provided to the Guild. And, of course, a concern across all writers was artificial intelligence.

CHANG: Right. OK.

STUTZMAN: And we were able to...

CHANG: And we're going to talk a little more about some of those issues, but can you just tell me - what was the turning point in these negotiations that made this deal finally come together after several months?

STUTZMAN: Well, I think - and there was a suggestion in July that perhaps the companies' strategy was to starve us out until people started to lose their homes. And at a certain point, it looked like the companies were going to wait as long as possible. But it turns out that they couldn't hold out because they need content. And of course, I'll just say that Screen Actors Guild joining writers on strike in July had a big effect. With two unions on strike, it was just no denying that this industry had to do things to address the real, legitimate concerns that writers were facing. And now they have to do it with actors.

CHANG: OK. Well, I want to ask about one of the wins that you mentioned. These are - this is greater transparency in viewership data on streaming platforms. Studios say that they will also pay bonuses, I understand, if shows are successful. What did the writers say to make the studios finally agree to that? 'Cause that was something that you had long argued for.

STUTZMAN: Yes. Well, the truth is, some things are impossible to gain without a strike, and I believe that is one of them. It's an issue that both actors and writers had proposals for and that the companies absolutely refused to engage with before we went on strike. But with two unions out on strike on the same issue and unwilling to come back to work without a deal that addressed that, I think they finally understood they have to do something. It's incredibly important. Writers and actors and directors have always shared in the success of their work, and they've been cut out of that on streaming. And that's going to change now.

CHANG: OK, so what hurt here, Ellen? What concessions did the Writers Guild have to make to get the studios to seal this deal?

STUTZMAN: Well, I think what hurt is the amount of time it took and how the sacrifice that writers made is a sacrifice that all Hollywood workers had to make because the entire industry was shut down. And so I think everyone feels how painful an almost five-month strike is. And that's why writers did so much to raise money and help more than just writers, but everyone affected. And so that's the most painful thing.

CHANG: Well, I know that one of the sticking points was also about the size of writers' rooms. The Writers Guild had initially asked for a minimum of six writers for certain rooms. This deal calls for a minimum of three. Are you happy with where you landed on that?

STUTZMAN: Yes. We presented, you know, opening proposal numbers that we always expected to negotiate off of, and we've ended up with three levels of staffing based on the episode order. So really, in the most common rooms, there'll be a minimum of five - in truth, six or fewer episodes. There aren't that many of those shows. So we're very happy. It's a minimum level. We've preserved the writers' room, which is fundamental to writers who work in television, and it's just a minimum.

CHANG: OK. I also want to touch upon artificial intelligence. This deal includes guidelines on the use of AI. Very briefly, what does this contract guarantee to writers on that front?

STUTZMAN: It guarantees to writers that artificial intelligence will not be used to replace them. It can't rewrite them. It doesn't affect their credits, and it doesn't affect their compensation. So it's some sort of research material that can be given to a writer, but they are the one writing the script, and they will be the one paid and credited for it.

CHANG: OK. But on that, I know that there is a group of prominent authors who are suing OpenAI right now, accusing the company of copyright infringement when it comes to using the authors' books to train its chatbot, ChatGPT. Does your deal give screenwriters protections against that sort of thing?

STUTZMAN: Well, screenwriters in this business - the companies own the copyright. And so we are aligned with the companies, essentially, and take the same position as those authors, which is that ChatGPT did not have the right to take those books or the scripts written by our members and now profit off of them. And so that's something the Guild will pursue on a policy basis.

CHANG: All right. So this ratification process starts next week. What happens if the writers are somehow not on board with the contract?

STUTZMAN: Well, the truth is - and judging from the reaction both Sunday night and yesterday, when we released the deal points - writers are ecstatic about this agreement. It's something that they won through their collective power, and I think we're going to see an overwhelming vote in support of it.

CHANG: That is Ellen Stutzman, chief negotiator for the Writers Guild of America. Thank you so much for joining us today.

STUTZMAN: Thanks for having me. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

NPR transcripts are created on a rush deadline by an NPR contractor. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Accuracy and availability may vary. The authoritative record of NPR’s programming is the audio record.

Erika Ryan
Erika Ryan is a producer for All Things Considered. She joined NPR after spending 4 years at CNN, where she worked for various shows and CNN.com in Atlanta and Washington, D.C. Ryan began her career in journalism as a print reporter covering arts and culture. She's a graduate of the University of South Carolina, and currently lives in Washington, D.C., with her dog, Millie.
Christopher Intagliata is an editor at All Things Considered, where he writes news and edits interviews with politicians, musicians, restaurant owners, scientists and many of the other voices heard on the air.
Ailsa Chang is an award-winning journalist who hosts All Things Considered along with Ari Shapiro, Audie Cornish, and Mary Louise Kelly. She landed in public radio after practicing law for a few years.