Exclusive: An Apple TV+ Executive Talks Streaming, The Strike & Global Television

Post by: Rick Ellis 06 June, 2023

In February, I posted some thoughts from an anonymous Netflix executive, who discussed mini-rooms and other issues that were likely to part of the upcoming negotiations with the WGA.

This week, I spoke with an executive at Apple TV+, who also agreed to talk as long as their anonymity was preserved (for obvious reasons). 

It was a wide-ranging conversation and the quotes included here have only been slightly edited for clarity and to protect the identity of the executive.

Q: We're a bit more than a month into the WGA strike. What is your sense on how it's going from the studio side?

A: To be clear, I am not part of the direct conversations or I don't have any direct responsibility on negotiating strategy. But I do have a pretty good perspective on where we are as a company.

Like most of the people are aren't C-suite management, I am sympathetic to a lot of the arguments put forth by writers. I think the current mini-room situation has had a real impact on the future of our industry and we definitely need to figure out a way to train young writers.

That being said, this is all about money. Any streaming platform is looking for cost savings anywhere they can be found. Is it coming out of the writer's pockets? For sure. But it's not personal. This isn't a matter of not wanting to pay writers what they're worth. But when we are trying to watch budgets, you cut anywhere you can. And the truth is that includes writers and other support staff.

Which gets back to my point about the strike. The only way writers will get more money or time or anything else is by getting what they want into a contract. 

Q: How effective are the WGA memes that contrast the pay of top executives with the rate spent on writers?

A: It's a fine PR move, but it doesn't move the dial in negotiations. Media companies don't see the world that way. You could cut the CEO pay in half, but that doesn't mean the money will end up in the pockets of writers. This isn't a situation where streaming companies don't appreciate the value of writing in the content ecosystem. We do. But we will pay the absolute minimum we can. I see people online blaming streaming for all of this. But this is how all businesses work. When a company moves its factory to Mexico or its customer service functions to Costa Rica, it's not personal. It's not because that company's executives hate their employees or don't value them. It's just a simple profit/loss equation. And that's case here. Streaming platforms are going to pay the least amount they can for everything - writers included.

I don't mean to sound like a dick, but writers tend to be smart and love what they do. But they can also think they're the center of the fucking universe. I know this strike is personal for them. I get it, I'd feel the same way. But this is all just numbers for the studios. What's the least amount we can get away with paying for everything? 

Q: The WGA has released some charts comparing the amount of money each company or studio is losing during the strike, compared to what it would cost them just to agree to the union's demands. What's your take on that?

A: Again, it's apples and oranges. It's not that simple. Let's say agreeing to every union demand would cost $40 million a year. That's not a one-off $40 million cost. That's at least $40 million a year forever. Because that now sets a higher minimum cost for everything and that expense will only increase in future negotiations. 

But that contract also sets the bar for writers in other territories. Or encourages industries in some countries to unionize in order to make more money. It's not so much the direct costs of the WGA deal. It's all of the fallout costs across the company.

Q: Where does the DGA fit into all of this? Why do you think they agreed to a contract with AMPTP?

A: I can't speak to where their head is at on that. I do think that directors tend to think they can't be replaced in the entertainment assembly line and that perspective has only gotten stronger in the era of mini-rooms, where the director becomes even more important when they might be the only person who is there for the entire process. Especially now that writers are often not able to be on set or stay on as the production continues. 

What they don't get is that they can be replaced. The golden ticket for every major streamer is to be able to produce a show that looks like it was produced in the U.S. But that was shot overseas with non-union crews and only a handful of American actors. Despite all of their other issues, American writers are tough to replace. We've found - and I think Netflix has had the same experience - that writing is a very culturally specific thing. It has a vibe that is nearly impossible to recreate without having grown up in that culture. It's tough to write a South Korean rom-com unless you grew up there. And it's the same way with American shows. You need an American writer, or someone very similar. Canadian, maybe British or Australian. Otherwise, the scripts feel different in a way that audiences notice.

But you know what, directing is universal. You don't need to understand American football or love apple pies to direct a series. You can be born in Croatia and do just fine with a big-budget American series. DGA members should be worried more about that than AI.

Q: So what about AI? Is it as big of a danger as the WGA worries it might be?

A: Who the fuck knows? It's pretty easy to see a future where AI could maybe come up with the premise and then we'd hire writers to flesh out that IP. Although given the way AI aggregates data, I don't think most companies would risk that without having some ironclad legal protections so they're not being sued for computer-generate plagiarism. But sure, it's a valid worry for writers. And in a larger sense, the technology is even a bigger issue for actors. Imagine being able to crank out episodes of Wednesday for twenty years without anyone aging? Or having a computer capture someone's voice and use it for decades without any additional compensation? That's very real and it troubles me that we're in the Wild West part of this process. 

As an industry, we can't afford to burn through our future in order to save a bit of money now. But truthfully, thinking about the future doesn't mesh all that well with the need to drive revenue and cut costs. 

Q: How long do you think the writers strike will last?

A: Ask me in a month. I'm only half joking when I say that every time Zaslav (Warner Bros. Discovery CEO David Zaslav) makes an appearance in that fucking vest thing, he adds another two weeks to the strike. He's like the Marie Antoiniette of the streaming world.

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Last modified on Friday, 16 June 2023 13:50