Why the Latest Hollywood WGA Strike is Unlikely to Spark a Digital Media Boom

Lon Harris
Lon Harris is a contributor to dot.LA. His work has also appeared on ScreenJunkies, RottenTomatoes and Inside Streaming.
Why the Latest Hollywood WGA Strike is Unlikely to Spark a Digital Media Boom
Evan Xie

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The last time Hollywood writers collectively went on strike against the Alliance of Motion Picture and Television Producers (AMPTP) was way back in November of 2007, when the internet looked very different from today. That strike ultimately lasted around 100 days, and in addition to the formal changes to how writers work and get paid, it also permanently shifted the digital media landscape, and led to all sorts of other unexpected ripple effects and consequences as well. (A new piece in LAist even suggests that the 2007 WGA strike may have pushed California into a recession before the rest of the country.)

How podcasting became a go-to for writers during the 2007 strike

The sudden loss of work writing for television and film pushed writers to explore new creative avenues that were just opening up at the time, such as podcasting, blogging, or posting videos to YouTube. Joss Whedon’s massively influential musical web series “Dr. Horrible’s Sing-Along Blog” came together because the then-beloved showrunner and his celebrity friends suddenly found themselves with no day jobs and a lot of extra time on their hands. Whedon was inspired by a different web series from “Dr. Horrible” co-star Felicia Day, “The Guild,” which had premiered on YouTube just a few months before the strike started in July 2007.

2005 is typically considered the breakout year for podcasting. The New Oxford American Dictionary named it “the word of the year” in ‘05, Yahoo! introduced its first “podcast search” product, and the White Houes began delivering President George W. Bush’s weekly addresses in a podcast format. Two years later, when comedians and writers were in need of new temporary projects to fill some time and keep their names in the pop culture consciousness, starting a podcast was a natural and obvious new outlet. A flood of amateur comedy podcasts hit the internet throughout 2006-2008, leading more established comedians like Marc Maron and Adam Carolla to enter the fray just a few years later, in 2009.

The 2007 strike also gets a lot of blame for a renewed interest in reality TV, that might have even kept Donald Trump’s “The Apprentice” for a few extra years, but Vanity Fair suggests this connection might be overblown. After all, reality shows were already a considerable mainstream hit by the mid ‘00s.

It’s fun to speculate what kinds of new media projects could get a boost this time out from writers who are temporarily pushed out of their day jobs. Certainly, VR and metaverse applications could use a new influx of innovation and creativity. The flagging market for non-true crime documenataries could get a boost as streamers desperately look around for more kinds of content to supplement their libraries. And, of course, someone needs to keep training all these AI chatbots.

Why the latest strike is unlikely to inspire the same media renaissance

Still, it’s unlikely that the new 2023 strike will directly lead to an interest in different kinds of digital media, as it did in 2007. Mainly because the digital media side of the industry has changed so much in the last decade and a half, including regulations about what kinds of work writers can do and a shift in baseline incentives for exploring new platforms.

In 2007, digital media remained a largely unexplored and unregulated frontier. Netflix was still primarily thought of as a DVD rental service. “Livestreaming” was a weird hobby by which individuals would give up their privacy and share every aspect of their daily routine, rather than a mainstream genre of video in which people play video games or watch movie trailers along with their friends and followers. The idea that an individual could build up a global following by recording themselves eating a large meal or playing Dungeons & Dragons or dancing to a K-pop song remained purely theoretical.

Today, these outlets and content offerings are much better known and understood, but also far more corporatized, established, and regulated, making it extremely unlikely that any disaffected TV writers will jump over to YouTube and make something like “Dr. Horrible” again. Rather than being a fun, experimental sandbox for side projects, YouTube is now a mainstream and established platform with a Hollywood economy all of its own. Whedon was seen in 2007 as a bold innovatorfor taking his talents to a brand new and exciting platform; today, in the eyes of Gen Z, jumping to YouTube as a workaround makes him a “scab.”

There are also some new regulations that might stymie writers’ attempts to broaden their horizons during the strike. Obviously, working on any professional film, TV or new media writing projects is expressly prohibited. The WGA also bars members from working on scripted fiction podcasts for any Minimum Basic Agreement (MBA) signatory, which includes jobs for big studios producing their own in-house podcasting projects. (Marvel Comics’ audio series would fit under this definition.) For the most part, it’s permissible for WGA writers to contribute to non-union podcasts, including productions for big studios like Ringer, Gimlet, and Parcast. Similar rules outline what work WGA members can take on video games.

Do writers even want these jobs in the first place?

Podcasts are much less novel in 2023 than they were in 2007, and the landscape is much more competitive for new players, even successful Hollywood-affiliated writers and comedians. In addition, this current strike hits at an uncertain overall moment for the podcasting business, in which budget cuts by sponsors led to the end of what one veteran referred to as “the dumb money era.” New podcasts no longer persent an immediately and obviously viable way to maintain a public profile or to bring in a reliable bit of extra income.

With so many alternate entertainment options in general in 2023 – from podcasts and video games to internationally-produced TV shows and films – there are also concerns among some writers about leverage. If Americans don’t immediately notice that there’s less content, and change their viewership and subscription habits, it hurts the writers’ argument that they deserve a larger share of the pie.

Some of this also relates back to the overall role of the tech business in the fight this time around. In 2007, the writers’ fight was with the conventional Hollywood establishment. Studio chiefs and media companies were attempting to adjust to the new reality of “streaming” and what it might mean for the future of entertainment, and writers wanted to ensure that they had a seat at the table for these discussions. In 2023, some of these legacy businesses remain intact, but the new power players are, in large part, the tech companies themselves, with writers sitting across from representatives of Amazon, Apple, and Netflix during negotiations.

Obviously, they’re going to be less enthusiastic about jumping on to other platforms owned by these same companies, some of which are adopting increasingly corporate payment and incentive structures of their own.

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Creandum’s Carl Fritjofsson on the Differences Between the Startup Ecosystem in Europe and the U.S.

Decerry Donato

Decerry Donato is a reporter at dot.LA. Prior to that, she was an editorial fellow at the company. Decerry received her bachelor's degree in literary journalism from the University of California, Irvine. She continues to write stories to inform the community about issues or events that take place in the L.A. area. On the weekends, she can be found hiking in the Angeles National forest or sifting through racks at your local thrift store.

Carl Fritjofsson
Carl Fritjofsson

On this episode of the LA Venture podcast, Creandum General Partner Carl Fritjofsson talks about his venture journey, why Generative-AI represents an opportunity to rethink products from the ground up, and why Q4 2023 and Q1 2024 could be "pretty bloody" for startups.

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AI Is Rapidly Advancing, but the Question Is, Can We Keep Up?

Lon Harris
Lon Harris is a contributor to dot.LA. His work has also appeared on ScreenJunkies, RottenTomatoes and Inside Streaming.
AI Is Rapidly Advancing, but the Question Is, Can We Keep Up?
Evan Xie

One way to measure just how white-hot AI development has become: the world is running out of the advanced graphics chips necessary to power AI programs. While Intel central processing units were once the most sought-after industry leaders, advanced graphics chips like Nvidia’s are designed to run multiple computations simultaneously, a baseline necessity for many AI models.

An early version of ChatGPT required around 10,000 graphics chips to run. By some estimates, newer updates require 3-5 times that amount of processing power. As a result of this skyrocketing demand, shares of Nvidia have jumped 165% so far this year.

Building on this momentum, this week, Nvidia revealed a line-up of new AI-related projects including an Israeli supercomputer project and a platform utilizing AI to help video game developers. For smaller companies and startups, however, getting access to the vital underlying technology that powers AI development is already becoming less about meritocracy and more about “who you know.” According to the Wall Street Journal, Elon Musk scooped up a valuable share of server space from Oracle this year before anyone else got a crack at it for his new OpenAI rival, X.AI.

The massive demand for Nvidia-style chips has also created a lucrative secondary market, where smaller companies and startups are often outbid by larger and more established rivals. One startup founder compares the fevered crush of the current chip marketplace to toilet paper in the early days of the pandemic. For those companies that don’t get access to the most powerful chips or enough server space in the cloud, often the only remaining option is to simplify their AI models, so they can run more efficiently.

Beyond just the design of new AI products, we’re also at a key moment for users and consumers, who are still figuring out what sorts of applications are ideal for AI and which ones are less effective, or potentially even unethical or dangerous. There’s now mounting evidence that the hype around some of these AI tools is reaching a lot further than the warnings about its drawbacks.

JP Morgan Chase is training a new AI chatbot to help customers choose financial securities and stocks, known as IndexGPT. For now, they insist that it’s purely supplemental, designed to advise and not replace money managers, but it may just be a matter of time before job losses begin to hit financial planners along with everyone else.

A lawyer in New York just this week was busted by a judge for using ChatGPT as part of his background research. When questioned by the judge, lawyer Peter LoDuco revealed that he’d farmed out some research to a colleague, Steven A. Schwartz, who had consulted with ChatGPT on the case. Schwartz was apparently unaware that the AI chatbot was able to lie – transcripts even show him questioning ChatGPT’s responses and the bot assuring him that these were, in fact, real cases and citations.

New research by Marucie Jakesch, a doctoral student from Cornell University, suggests that even users who are more aware than Schwartz about how AI works and its limitations may still be impacted in subtle and subconscious ways by its output.

Not to mention, according to data from Intelligent.com, high school and college students already – on the whole – prefer utilizing ChatGPT for help with schoolwork over a human tutor. The survey also notes that advanced students tend to report getting more out of using ChatGPT-type programs than beginners, likely because they have more baseline knowledge and can construct better and more informative prompts.

But therein lies the big drawback to using ChatGPT and other AI tools for education. At least so far, they’re reliant on the end user writing good prompts and having some sense about how to organize a lesson plan for themselves. Human tutors, on the other hand, have a lot of personal experience in these kinds of areas. Someone who instructs others in foreign languages professionally probably has a good inherent sense of when you need to focus on expanding your vocabulary vs. drilling certain kinds of verb and tense conjugations. They’ve helped many other students prepare for tests, quizzes, and real-world challenges, while computer software can only guess at what kinds of scenarios its proteges will face.

A recent Forbes editorial by academic Thomas Davenport suggests that, while AI is getting all the hype right now, other forms of computing or machine learning are still going to be more effective for a lot of basic tasks. From a marketing perspective in 2023, it’s helpful for a tech company to throw the “AI” brand around, but it’s not magically going to be the answer for every problem.

Davenport points to a similar (if smaller) whirlwind of excitement around IBM’s “Watson” in the early 2010s, when it was famously able to take out human “Jeopardy!’ champions. It turns out, Watson was a general knowledge engine, really best suited for jobs like playing “Jeopardy.” But after the software gained celebrity status, people tried to use it for all sorts of advanced applications, like designing cancer drugs or providing investment advice. Today, few people turn to Watson for these kinds of solutions. It’s just the wrong tool for the job. In that same way, Davenport suggests that generative AI is in danger of being misapplied.

While the industry and end users both race to solve the AI puzzle in real time, governments are also feeling pressure to step in and potentially regulate the AI industry. This is much easier said than done, though, as politicians face the same kinds of questions and uncertainty as everyone else.

OpenAI CEO Sam Altman has been calling for governments to begin regulating AI, but just this week, he suggested that the company might pull out of the European Union entirely if the regulations were too onerous. Specifically, Altman worries that attempts to narrow what kinds of data can be used to train AI systems – specifically blocking copyrighted material – might well prove impossible. “If we can comply, we will, and if we can’t, we’ll cease operating,” Altman told Time. “We will try, but there are technical limits to what’s possible.” (Altman has already started walking this threat back, suggesting he has no immediate plans to exit the EU.)

In the US, The White House has been working on a “Blueprint for an AI Bill of Rights,” but it’s non-binding, just a collection of largely vague suggestions. It’s one thing to agree “consumers shouldn’t face discrimination from an algorithm” and “everyone should be protected from abusive data practices and have agency over how their data is used.” But enforcement is an entirely different animal. A lot of these issues already exist in tech, and are much larger than AI, and the US government already doesn’t do much about them.

Additionally, it’s possible AI regulations won’t work well at all if they aren’t global. Even if you set some policies and get an entire nation’s government to agree, how to set similar worldwide protocols? What if US and Europe agree but India doesn’t? Everyone around the world accesses roughly the same internet, so without any kind of international standard, it’s going to be much harder for individual nations to enforce specific rules. As with so many other AI developments, there’s inherent danger in patchwork regulations; it could allow some companies, or regions, or players to move forward while others are unfairly or ineffectively stymied or held back.

The same kinds of socio-economic concerns around AI that we have nationally – some sectors of the work force left behind, the wealthiest and most established players coming in to the new market with massive advantages, the rapid spread of misinformation – are all, in actuality, global concerns. Just as the hegemony of Microsoft and Google threaten the ability of new players to enter the AI space, the West’s early dominance of AI tech threatens to push out companies and innovations from emerging markets like Southeast Asia, Subsaharan Africa, and Central America. Left unfettered, AI could potentially deepen social, economic, and digital divisions both within and between all of these societies.

Undaunted, some governments aren’t waiting around for these tools to develop any further before they start attempting to regulate them. New York City has already set up some rules about how AI can be used during the hiring process while will take effect in July. The law requires any company using AI software in hiring to notify candidates that it’s being used, and to have independent auditors check the system annually for bias.

This sort of piecemeal figure-it-out-as-we-go approach is probably what’s going to be necessary, at least short-term, as AI development shows zero signs of slowing down or stopping any time soon. Though there’s some disagreement among experts, most analysts agree with Wharton professor and economist Jeremy Siegel, who told CNBC this week that AI is not yet a bubble. He pointed to the Nvidia earnings as a sign the market remains healthy and not overly frothy. So, at least for now, the feverish excitement around AI is not going to burst like a late ‘90s startup stock. The world needs to prepare as if this technology is going to be with us for a while.

Rivian CEO Teases R2, New Features in Instagram AMA

David Shultz

David Shultz reports on clean technology and electric vehicles, among other industries, for dot.LA. His writing has appeared in The Atlantic, Outside, Nautilus and many other publications.

Rivian CEO Teases R2, New Features in Instagram AMA

Rivian CEO RJ Scaringe took to Instagram last weekend to answer questions from the public about his company and its future. Topics covered included new colors, sustainability, production ramp, new products and features. Speaking of which, viewers also got a first look at the company’s much-anticipated R2 platform, albeit made of clay and covered by a sheet, but hey, that’s…something. If you don’t want to watch the whole 33 minute video, which is now also on Youtube, we’ve got the highlights for you.

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