Photo courtesy Ryan Walls. Graphic: Stephanie Aly
It wasn’t shocking when The Hollywood Reporter reported last week that an NBCUniversal and Warner Bros. Discovery merger may come as soon as 2024, but it was certainly a foreboding reminder of the profit-at-all-costs path that media conglomerates have chosen to take.
Tuesday’s Board of Directors election for the Writers Guild of America West will seat eight new board members who will be on the front lines fighting for fair treatment of writers who are being squeezed from all directions by corporate greed.
I spoke with candidate and TV writer Ryan Walls as the voting deadline for this year’s election approached. Walls has been a WGA member since 2012 and wrote on Modern Family, Angie Tribeca and Zach Stone is Gonna Be Famous. He speaks passionately about the importance of unity and collective action among writers and between writers and other artists and creators.
Our conversation focused heavily on media consolidation, and its impact on writers, fans and the industry more broadly; we also discussed streaming developments and diversity in the Guild. Read it below and find Walls’ candidate page here.
Why are you running for WGAW Board? Why now?
We’re seeing the media landscape move into uncharted territory. Every tech company is a media company, streaming is expanding while the companies consolidate, there are more scripted shows than ever before. While that happens we’ve seen three consecutive years of decline in writer pay and writing jobs. It’s absolutely unacceptable.
Writers are the lifeblood of the industry. We have a tremendous opportunity in our 2023 negotiation to help protect writing jobs. I’m running to fight on behalf of writers — all writers — to make sure we’re participating in the success of the shows we create and staff on.
You specifically highlight variety, late-night and animation writers as struggling for minimums and healthcare benefits. Can you go into more detail about what they’re facing?
Variety, late-night and animation writers are getting screwed. Animation writers in particular. They are at the mercy of studios who decide what project will have full WGA coverage. These studios are making billions off our creativity. Every project created by a WGA writer, staffed by WGA writers, should have full WGA protections.
There was recently a WGA animation pledge that a great number of members signed. We will fight to make sure our animation writers are paid the same as live-action writers, have equitable residuals, and have full healthcare and pension benefits. It’s bullshit they don’t. Enough is enough.
I want to talk more about media consolidation, especially in light of recent reports that an NBCUniversal–Warner Bros. Discovery merger could happen as soon as 2024. Can you explain how media consolidation specifically hurts writers?
Media consolidation is a massive threat to writers. The Warners–Discovery merger is just a taste of what’s to come. David Zaslav came into the new company with the mandate to cut $3 billion out of it. Do you think they were going to start with the corporate jets? Hell no. The first thing he did was gut the scripted departments at TBS and TNT. If it were up to Zaslav, everyone would just watch re-runs of Fixer Upper.
Writers are just a line in an Excel sheet to the corporate ownership looking to slash overhead. This isn’t going to stop. There’s always a bigger fish looking to eat. No one should be surprised if Comcast makes a play for Warner Discovery in a few years.
What do you think are the broader implications of continuing media consolidation for fans’ ultimate experience with creative work on television?
Bat Girl is in a vault at the bottom of the ocean, and at HBO Max, countless TV shows have been ripped from libraries, all for tax purposes. Fan outcry online, trending hashtags — that level of engagement doesn’t stand a chance against a quarterly earnings call where they can say, “Good news! We’re closer to our $3 billion mandate.”
They’re going to focus on the properties they have and make less investment in new ideas. If there’s a way to put Fixer Upper in the (DC Universe) they’re gonna do it. Batman can’t renovate the Bat Cave himself…
The pace of consolidation is bringing us alarmingly close to 30 Rock’s reality. How might the WGA, DGA and SAG-AFTRA work together to stop the spiral?
The unions need to get louder on this issue. It affects writers, directors and actors. The WGA is not afraid of collective action to make sure we’re being heard. We need the political arm of the union to make sure we’re supporting candidates who oppose media consolidation and leaning on representatives in the Senate who confirm FCC commissioners (to) only consider individuals who recognize monopolization as a threat.
Every writer I’ve spoken with points out how unfair and unsustainable the current residuals scheme is, and you’ve specifically called out the “new technology” cap in the MBA. Why is the current setup problematic?
Streaming services have enjoyed secondary status when it comes to writer pay and residuals for far too long. When streaming shows and movies online first launched they were given the “new technology” designation (not unlike DVDs in the ‘90s) — basically a “You can’t ask us for fair treatment because this might just be a fad” excuse.
Now streaming dominates and they’re taking on ad-supported tiers. They’re networks at this point and writers should be paid as such. The new tech label — which can limit writer participation in a show’s success — has to go. We’ve seen gains made for writers on the streaming front starting in the ’07 strike, but we need to continue to make sure residuals for writers see significant growth in the next negotiation.
You say that more needs to be done within the union to create employment opportunities — especially for historically underrepresented groups including Middle Eastern and disabled writers. How can the Guild help cultivate new writers, including those with identities and experiences that aren’t always well-represented in writers rooms?
Right now there’s an incredible program called the Writer’s Access Support Staff Training Program. It’s run in conjunction with Pay Up Hollywood and the Writer’s Guild Foundation. What they’re doing is bringing in people from historically underrepresented groups and training them to become writer’s assistants and script coordinators. This is a great first step to help get people mentorship, get hired in writers rooms, with the ultimate goal of landing that first staffing job. The WGA needs to embrace this program full-heartedly and support it in any way we can.
We really need to expand the pipeline to membership. I believe we should have a probationary tier of membership, a pathway membership that builds off the support-staff training program. Let’s bring in writer’s assistants and script coordinators into the guild, get them connected with showrunners and help get them hired. So many unions put a premium on apprenticeship; the WGA needs to do the same with mentorship. I believe the bigger the Guild, the better.
Is there anything we haven’t touched on that you’d like to add?
Labor is having an incredible moment in this country right now. We’re seeing it with Amazon warehouse workers, Starbucks employees, John Deere factory workers, nurses and teachers. I’m running for the WGA Board of Directors because I want to carry that momentum into our next negotiation. I’m ready to fight to protect writers and the future of our business. I don’t want any more vaults at the bottom of the ocean.