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The Tufts Daily
Where you read it first | Wednesday, November 29, 2023

The Power of the Pen: Streaming and residuals

Consider the history of the Writers Guild of America, and how it affects the present strikes.


The Writers Guild of America on strike in New York.

If you’ve been paying attention to the world of entertainment over the past several months, you may be familiar with the continuing strikes among film and TV workers. The first domino fell on May 2, when the Writers Guild of America went on strike. Approximately 11,500 screenwriters all refused to continue work until the union’s demands were met.

For the past several months, the WGA has been demanding that big studios change their policies and renegotiate writers’ contracts to give more and better benefits — continuing the WGA’s long fight for the betterment of the industry.

The WGA originally formed from the union of previous writers guilds in 1954, namely the Authors Guild, founded in 1912, and the Screen Writers Guild, founded in 1933. The WGA is composed of two American labor unions; the Writers Guild of America East and West. Together the unions represent writers in all American film and television media production. Both unions also work together when it comes to strike negotiations and contracts.

Prior to 2023, the WGA had eight strikes lasting from a couple weeks to several months. From these strikes, the WGA won many benefits. However, one major point of contention is always residuals — which brings us back to 2023 and the rise of streaming.

The true rise of streaming movies and TV began in the early 2010s when Netflix began their tradition of dropping the full season of a show on their platform all at once. In 2013, both “House of Cards” (2013–18) and “Orange is the New Black” (2013–19) dropped their full seasons on their respective release dates. As such, instead of viewers waiting each week for a new episode, they were able to binge the full season in one sitting. This model allows for viewers to watch what they want anytime, without being hindered by the rules of live programming.

While streaming makes it easier for the average viewer to rewatch their favorite movies and TV shows, writers often receive less pay for their work on these platforms. This is partly due to streaming services typically having short season lengths — and thus less need for writers — and partly to do with how residuals are calculated.

Residuals, for those unaware, are a long-term form of payments given to film and TV workers for a project they did that engages in reruns. With live television, the actors and writers get paid during each re-airing and each physical DVD purchase. With streaming, payments are cut down so significantly that actors have reported making mere pennies on their past projects.

So, while streaming may be convenient for the viewers, its business model hinders writers’ abilities to make a living from their job. As such, the current writers strike is calling for streaming companies and big studios to rethink and rework how they pay their residuals.