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Being a TV writer has changed — and so have the wages, says 'The Wire' creator

Writers Guild of America East members hand out flyers as they walk a picket line in New York on May 16.
Michael M. Santiago
Getty Images
Writers Guild of America East members hand out flyers as they walk a picket line in New York on May 16.

It's been more than three weeks since Hollywood writers went on strike, sending late night comedy shows and soap operas into reruns, while scripted shows with longer turnarounds are braced to feel the effects of the walkouts.

David Simon, who created shows like The Wire and Treme, says that many of the fundamental issues that led to the 2007 writer's strike are at stake here – like how technology is reshaping the profession.

"They are now telling us, 'We don't know what AI is; we don't know how good it's gonna be; let's not litigate what AI can and can't do,'" he says. "They did the same thing in 2007 when it was streaming."

Simon is a member of the Writers Guild of America's negotiating committee, which, until the strike began this month, had been negotiating with the studios over a new contract.

In a statement, the Alliance of Motion Picture and Television Producers – which negotiates on behalf of the studios – says it offered "generous increases in compensation" to the writers. It calls some of their proposals "incompatible with the creative nature" of the industry.

But Simon argues that the nature of the industry has changed. He says studios are hiring writers on shorter contracts. "You can't live on three weeks' salary. That's what's happening now," he says.

"When I came on on Homicide, a network show that had 22 episodes, I had 30 weeks of employment. I can live on that. I can have a career. I can actually seriously consider writing television for a living."

"I offer what's available on these shorter-run shows now to writers — I can't sustain them."

And in an interview with NPR's Ari Shapiro, Simon says this is a far cry from his experience when he first started writing for television.

David Simon, pictured here in 2020, says the economics of being a writer have changed.
Amy Sussman / Getty Images
Getty Images
David Simon, pictured here in 2020, says the economics of being a writer have changed.

This interview has been lightly edited for length and clarity.

Interview highlights

On the power of writer's rooms

I grew up with a mentor. Tom Fontana hired me to write for the show Homicide, which was based on a book I wrote in Baltimore. He believed that there was a threshold of creativity that ... resulted when you had a bunch of writers in a room talking and arguing the material and making scripts better.

So I walked into a writer's room. And not only did I have the benefit of writers who had more experience than me ... but Tom did other things. He sent me to set and to protect the script on set. He sent me to casting. He sent me, when I was ready, he sent me into editing. Those things made me conscious of what you need to do to write competently and even, you know, write in an advanced way for television.

On why "term employment" would lead to better TV

It's saying, look, hire people for a certain amount of time to do the work, and then have them there on set and afterwards, in editing, when writing is happening. Some of the most fundamental decisions about writing are in editing or in reconceptualizing a scene because you've lost a location or because an actor is struggling with a line. That's the writer's work, and we do it on set. And it's why television was able to get to the place of sophistication that it did.

On the failure of AI to mimic human storytelling

I don't think AI can remotely challenge what writers do at a fundamentally creative level... If that's where this industry is going, it's going to infantilize itself. We're all going to be watching stuff we've watched before, only worse.

I mean, if a writer wants to play around with AI as the writer and see if it helps him, I mean, I regard it as no different than him having a thesaurus or a dictionary on his desk or a book of quotable quotes. Play around with it. If it starts to lead the way in the sense that a studio exec comes to you and says, "AI gave us this story that we want," that's not why I got into storytelling. And it's not where I'll stay if that's what storytelling is.

Copyright 2023 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

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