In a new weekly column, writer Lon Harris examines how the WGA’s Writers Strike can work for the creative industry.
Though many of its demands are specific, the ongoing Writers Strike highlights pressing issues for not just professional film and TV writers, but everyone pursuing creative careers in present-day America. In this ongoing series, we’re looking at some of the lessons everyone, not just the next generation of showrunners, should be taking to heart.
This week, we’re diving into the importance of prioritizing long-term sustainability. Beyond just “more pay,” one of the key issues the writers are pushing for during these negotiations has to do with the way TV writing careers are built over time. Creators of all kinds struggle to stay afloat in a world that prioritizes short-term gains over longevity—but it doesn’t have to be that way.
Maintaining focus in a viral world
Traditionally, up-and-coming writers would be hired to staff positions in writing rooms, where they’d pitch jokes or ideas alongside more seasoned veterans. Over time, the best of these young writers would learn the ropes, rise up in their positions, and eventually become showrunners, spearheading writing rooms of their own.
With the rise of streaming and new attention on cutting costs at every level of the TV-producing process, many aspects of this model have been sacrificed. While shows once produced 22 or more episodes per season, now season orders are only 6 to 10. The large writers’ rooms of old have now become what are known as “mini-rooms” of just a few writers at a time, knocking out scripts for short-run series in a matter of just a few weeks.
While this is a cost-conscious way of producing television, it’s not ideal for establishing a long-term writing career. As CSI writer Deanna Shumaker explained in a viral Twitter thread back in April related to the Writers Strike, it’s become extremely difficult for new writers to establish careers within this new system, even if they’ve already worked on a high-profile network TV series.
This also created what’s come to be known as the “Showrunner Apprenticeship Problem.” Put simply, not enough young TV writers are getting long-term jobs to actually learn how to do the work of a head writer or showrunner. Without on-the-job training, where are the Ryan Murphys and Shonda Rhimes of tomorrow going to come from?
For independent content creators, it’s also absolutely crucial to build out a pathway to a long-term career. By their very nature, social media platforms are ephemeral, focused on what’s popular, trending, and likely to go viral at the moment.
It’s important for up-and-coming creators to chase this kind of virality while building an audience, but it’s also tempting to focus exclusively on chasing trends and popping up on the “front page”—without ever developing a consistent level of quality or finding a distinctive voice that sets their content apart from everyone else who’s attempting to ride the same trends.
The consequences to craft
Social media apps themselves aren’t geared toward career-building, helping individual creators to make lasting impressions on their audience, or especially generating the kind of revenue that would allow them to spend real time focusing on their craft (comedy, photography, graphic design, writing, etc) and improving their work.
Despite becoming an advertising “juggernaut” that brought in roughly $10 billion in revenue last year, TikTok has no consistent revenue stream for creators, outside of headline-grabbing “funds” that mostly benefit the top, most popular users. Instead, the app requires upstart creators to figure out their own path to career-building through brand sponsorships or third-party sites like Patreon.
Opportunities for “influencers” and viral stars abound, but they’re not always designed to bring maximum benefit for the creators or to engage with their audiences in a way that’s forthright, high-quality, and responsible.
In 2022, a collective of TikTok accounts was exposed for posting cleverly disguised ads for a line of “prank” toys aimed at children, none of which were clearly labeled as sponsorships. Shady undisclosed sponsorship deals violate the app’s terms of service, but there are little to no consequences for these kinds of infractions.
In a similar vein, fake videos chasing views abound on social media. Misleading edits, fake storytimes, staged pranks, and even deepfakes are starting to warp reality on popular sites. These videos, and the platforms they live on, may financially benefit from taking ads and accumulating views. But it probably won’t endear them to audiences long-term.
A marathon, not a sprint
Workflow is also a major concern for full-time creators. Growing a sizable audience on platforms like Instagram and YouTube requires frequent, regular updates. Miss too many videos when your fans are expecting to find them, and you run the risk of those fans looking for their content fix elsewhere.
This can encourage many creators to adopt unhealthy or unsustainable lifestyles in order to feed the content machine, but over a long enough timeline, this more often leads to burnout than a runaway success.
For What’s Trending CEO and founder Shira Lazar, there’s very little daylight between the conversation happening among professional TV writers and independent digital creators at the present moment.
“Media is hard and the economy is challenging, but we need to create sustainable models to maintain these industries unless we want to self-implode, which seems to be happening,” Lazar told Passionfruit. “It means fair wages plus having reasonable conversations that lead us towards actions and solutions. We deserve equitable and ethical spaces in all workplaces and entertainment is no exception.”
A first blush of viral success can bring with it a lot of new opportunities and exciting pitches, but creators who are solely focused on their next gig rather than thinking about where they want to be in a year or even five years can find themselves physically and mentally exhausted, in a creative rut, or stuck with a narrow audience that’s unwilling to follow them where they want to go.
Keeping an eye on the horizon
Just as Hollywood writers are attempting to lay out a blueprint for how the next generation will learn the ropes during the Writers Strike, creatives need to keep one eye on the horizon and think about how the work they’re doing today is going to build them an audience for tomorrow.
That means choosing content to cover and areas to focus on that have personal relevance, beyond just popping up on the trending page that day, and finding an authentic and personal voice that keeps people coming back day after day to hear fresh takes and analyses.
It also means spending real time cultivating a positive community of like-minded and enthusiastic followers, who will help to evangelize and promote work organically. For many upstart creators, the job quickly devolves into a numbers game, watching the view counts increase with each successive new release. But while driving views is obviously key, taking a few moments away to connect with the real people who could become potential fans and listen to their feedback pays off exponentially down the road.
Platforms can also do so, so much more. Algorithms can be tweaked to not exponentially amplify the 1% of top creators, and instead promote smaller creators and more diverse niches. Instead of just virtue-signaling with mental health awareness campaigns, multi-million-dollar platforms can help actually reduce burnout by improving creators’ material conditions with bolstered revenue-sharing programs, creator funds, and up-front investment into creative projects. Creators and social media users can unite to make these demands.
We’ll continue with similar ideas next time, in a column about why individual people—not technology or innovation—lie at the heart of both creative writing and digital content creation.