Strikers' demands resonate with the public: 73% of Americans agree that performers must be paid for the use of their digital likenesses.
Written By: Nicholas Holterman | Published: September 20, 2023
Since May, a historic event has gripped Hollywood. The Writers Guild of America (WGA) has launched a strike, causing projects across the industry to grind to a halt. The worker’s movement grew when the Screen Actors Guild–American Federation of Television and Radio Artists (SAG-AFTRA) joined the strike weeks later in July.
This joint strike, the first since 1960, is a battlefront against both unfair compensation and the intrusion of artificial intelligence (AI) in entertainment. Many creative workers worry AI will threaten their livelihoods, which are already challenged by economic issues.
Amid this turmoil, we conducted a nationwide study of 1,000 Americans to understand how the public perceives the strikes and the role of AI in shaping the future of the industry.
- Regarding AI in entertainment, many Americans were sympathetic to the demands of striking actors. 73% of adults felt that performers should be paid for each use of their digital likeness.
- 46% of adults in our study were opposed to the use of AI to generate TV and movies, and 43% of adults were not very or not at all interested in watching media generated by AI.
- Actors and writers for successful streaming shows often receive residual checks in cents rather than dollars. 56% of Americans think it would be fairer for writers and actors to be paid in proportion to the number of people who watch their works.
- Over a quarter of adults said the strikes have strongly influenced them to reconsider their streaming subscriptions. About 30% of these people plan to unsubscribe from one or more streaming platforms.
What is the actors’ strike?
The Screen Actors Guild–American Federation of Television and Radio Artists (SAG-AFTRA), the union representing more than 160,000 industry professionals, officially began striking on July 14, 2023. WGA and SAG-AFTRA walked out jointly for the first time since 1960. They are negotiating for better pay and working conditions, as well as streaming residuals and the use of AI in entertainment.
As strike awareness grows, 56% agree actors and writers should be paid according to success of shows
Seventy-two percent of Americans are at least somewhat aware of the ongoing strikes, which have many implications that hit close to home. Two months after WGA left the bargaining table, many movies, shows, podcasts, and radio programs have slowed, paused, or canceled production altogether.
For instance, popular shows like “Emily in Paris” on Netflix, “Euphoria” and “Last Week Tonight with John Oliver” on MAX, and “Andor” on Disney Plus have suspended production while the strike carries on.
Despite the popularity of many series on streaming services, writers and actors often receive residual checks paid out in cents rather than dollars. This fact has come to light thanks to a recent social media trend. A residual payment is a payment the workers receive over a production's lifespan. In other words, it's what WGA and SAG-AFTRA members get paid whenever their work is released and then rewatched or reproduced.
Among many others, Mandy Moore of Hulu's “This Is Us” and Jana Schmieding of Hulu's “Reservation Dogs” have spoken out about their poor compensation based on viewership numbers. Moore revealed her quarterly residual checks from Hulu totaled 81 cents, while Schmieding shared hers added up to three cents.
These streaming service residuals starkly contrast the hefty sums paid out to network-syndicated shows. In 2015, the actors from “Friends” were reported to make $20 million in residuals alone. If the business models for traditional television networks and streaming services vary significantly, should the pay for the creative and technical workers vary, too?
At least 56 percent of American adults believe that performers should be paid proportionately to the number of people who watch their works. This number demonstrates that a majority agrees with the strikers that residual payments from streaming services to workers should match those paid to other individuals in the industry. Because audience measurement and viewership numbers are not cut and dried, however, audience numbers may not be the best metric for determining residual payouts.
Amid the SAG-AFTRA and WGA strike for a more equitable wage, streaming services ride the wave of profits that began to flow during the COVID-19 pandemic. Media executives' annual compensation, including salary and stock market options, speaks for itself. Robert Iger, the Chairman and CEO of Disney, made about $46 million in 2021; Reed Hasting, the CEO and President of Netflix, earned $51 million in 2022.
To address the disparity between executive salaries, actors demand an 11 percent raise to their base salaries this year, and a four percent raise each subsequent year until the next contract bargaining period. Annual increases like this are commonplace over many contracts resulting from negotiations.
Netflix recently posted a job listing for a machine learning management position that would pay $900,000 annually. Clearly, Netflix is investing a lot of money to develop its AI infrastructure further. After all, algorithms already power Netflix. This kind of “algorithm economy” that determines which movies get produced and streamed and which shows get renewed or canceled is a vital part of the strikers' bargaining platform.
WGA, SAG-AFTRA, and everyday viewers say ‘No' to AI
Another contract amendment WAG and SAG-AFTRA are bargaining for is the limitation of artificial intelligence in Hollywood productions. Actors and writers want to protect their rights and livelihoods in the face of rapidly developing technology. For SAG-AFTRA, actors are worried about not receiving the appropriate compensation from production companies that want to digitally reproduce actors, especially extras.
The second season premiere of “30 Rock” features a similar anxiety felt by Jerry Seinfeld when a fictional NBC Studios digitally inserts the famous comedian into various television shows without his permission. Eventually, Jerry warms up to the idea of “SeinfeldVision” not because he loves the idea but because he's compensated fairly for his digital appearances. Even though this episode aired over 15 years ago, it's still relevant to the conversation today about digitally reconstructing an actor and their likeness.
“Likeness” stems from recent legal cases in which lawyers have argued against AI and in favor of the rights of publicity and copyright. The rapid evolution of AI and the relatively quick trials that rule on it have left the law with little precedent to work with. The right of publicity is also known as personality rights and protects an individual's image, name, or other identifying information.
Most Americans support actors in their fight to protect their likenesses on screen. When asked whether performers should be paid for using their digital likenesses, 73 percent of Americans felt they should. Similarly, 77 percent believed that performers should have to consent to every subsequent use of their likeness.
Without proper regulations and ethical implementation, artificial intelligence could displace and unemploy thousands of workers. Even though workers could lose their jobs, AI-generated works would still create profit for the executives who already make too much. This may be why so few Americans currently favor the idea of AI-generated movies and shows: 46 percent were opposed to the concept.
|How do you feel about using AI to create movies and TV shows?||Percent of Americans|
Another consequence of the unchecked use of AI in Hollywood productions could be the disappearance of human touch and creativity. Many writers and actors are concerned about studios using their work to train AI software. Because images like concept and production art are inputted into algorithms without individual artists' consent, many workers fear the implications AI could have on their copyrights and their longevity in the industry.
An increase in artificial intelligence in Hollywood mirrors the uptick in AI-generated products across global markets, and not without consequence. For instance, the Federal Trade Commission is investigating OpenAI's popular chatbot ChatGPT for the possible psychological and physical harm it might cause its users. And yet, the nature of this technology is to respond to human input and continually learn from errors and successes.
The heart of the issue for WGA and SAG-AFTRA lies in their compensation and consent for productions to reuse their likenesses, voices, words, and labor. These concerns are legitimate, of course, but despite AI's popularity, most Americans don't seem particularly interested in watching films created by AI software. According to our survey, 43 percent of adults were not very or not at all interested in viewing media generated by AI.
|How interested would you be in watching a movie or TV show written and acted entirely by artificial intelligence?||Percent of Americans|
|Not at all interested||24%|
|Not very interested||19%|
Members of the Baby Boomer generation aged 45-60 were much more interested than all other age groups, and men were significantly more interested than women in viewing AI-generated movies and shows.
The strikers' concerns may not align with the general public's regarding movie-making robots. Some Americans may be curious to see what AI-generated films and TV might look like rather than turning to these productions for serious entertainment. An undeniable comedy comes from watching an AI-generated work, like this trailer for a fictional “Barbenheimer” movie or this pizza shop commercial. Still, it may stem more from an uncanny discomfort than a relatable, human sense of humor.
Strikes could lead to spikes in streaming platform unsubscriptions
Due to production delays, the threat of AI-generated content, and actors' and writers' demands, many Americans are considering significantly changing their streaming services. Among the people who the strikes have influenced to reevaluate their streaming subscriptions, 40 percent are interested in switching to less expensive plans or services, while 30 percent are likely to unsubscribe from one or more of their current plans altogether.
The strikes may have been the final push subscribers needed to reevaluate their service needs, especially given the recent upset with streaming platforms for raising their rates while producing uninteresting content and cracking down on watchers sharing passwords.
Though SAG-AFTRA has not asked non-union supporters to cancel their streaming services, it’s clear that some pro-union respondents view unsubscribing from or downgrading plans as a way to support the unions.
As SAG-AFTRA and WGA approach their fifth week of joint strikes, the long- and short-term outcomes and the impact of work stoppages on workers and viewers remain unclear. The American public is very aware of the striking workers’ demands and the implications the strikes may have on their ability to stream shows and movies. Only time will tell, as will the continued, good-faith negotiations between AMPTP and the unions on strike, what agreements can be made on fairly paying and crediting workers with the fruits of their labor.
In 2023, we conducted an online poll of 1,067 American adults aged 18+. Their ages and genders were representative of the U.S. population. To account for the overrepresentation of low-income respondents, we weighted respondents using inverse propensity weighting. This was based on Logistic Regression, which uses an AI to assign weights to each respondent so that it could balance the sample based on income.