My guest today, David Simon has been a creative giant in the television industry for more than two decades. He’s the creator of a string of T.V. series including The Wire, Treme, and The Plot Against America. But at the moment, his focus isn’t on developing new shows, rather, he’s smack dab in the middle of the Hollywood writer’s strike; part of the team trying to negotiate a deal.
SIMON: The truth is, there has always been a healthy contempt for the creative element in this industry. I am generalizing here, but certainly the people who are closer to the Wall Street analysts and the people who are running the studios, I don’t think they have a clue what it is that writers do.
Welcome to People I (Mostly) Admire, with Steve Levitt.
Today, I’m particularly interested in talking about the writer’s strike. There are lots of academic economic papers written about labor unions and strikes, but I have a hunch that the on-the-ground reality of strikes: why they happen, how they’re negotiated, how they end; bears little relationship to the ivory tower theories my colleagues create. Although at some very basic level, strikes would seem to be all about economics; I suspect that there are many other, more powerful, forces at work. Emotions like pride, anger, and fear. Things that aren’t well captured through a purely economic lens.
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LEVITT: So let me start with a long overdue thank you. In 1991, I was a first-year economics Ph.D. student at M.I.T. I was completely overwhelmed by the brilliance of my peers. So over winter break, I went home and my dad gave me some advice. He said, look, if you’ve got no talent, you need to do something that nobody else was doing. And I was reading your book Homicide: A Year on The Killing Streets, which had just come out. My favorite T.V. show at the time was Cops, and the answer was right in front of me. I should study crime. No one else at that time was studying crime through an economic lens. It turned out to be the perfect path for me, and I think if I hadn’t been so spellbound by your book Homicide, I don’t think I would’ve had the good sense to follow that path. So I’ve been waiting 30 years to thank you for writing such a great book.
SIMON: I didn’t know of the connection, but I’m honored. That’s very kind.
LEVITT: So people know you mostly for your work in T.V., especially for The Wire, which is one of T.V.’s most iconic series, but many other series as well: The Deuce, The Plot Against America, Treme. But I think it will come as a surprise to people to hear that you also have served as a member of the governing board of the Writer’s Guild of America East, and that you are part of the negotiating committee for the Writer’s Guild of America, the W.G.A. So you are right in the middle of the action surrounding the writer’s strike.
SIMON: I’ve been a union man my whole life. I started with the Newspaper Guild at The Baltimore Sun in 1984. So my whole working career, I’ve been a — I’m a union man.
LEVITT: Your career’s almost like a fairytale. A beat reporter at The Baltimore Sun turns into a major player in the T.V. industry who writes and produces shows at HBO for decades. I would think you’d be too caught up in your own stuff to be tied up in union activities. You don’t need the union. You can write your own ticket. So why do you invest your time?
SIMON: Hah. That is the crippling thing that happens to some people, is that they mistake their own good fortune, or even the measure of their own talent, for the power of collective bargaining and what collective bargaining has achieved for them, even as they set foot in a newsroom, in my case, or on a film set. Battles that were fought long before I ever thought of making television or of walking into a newsroom ensured that protections were in place for me as an employee, that I actually had to avail myself of at times, that standards of pay and of benefits were established and fought for, that credit circumstances with regard to the film industry — all these battles were had, and they were had by people, some of whom were in my position at the time they were having them as well. The reason the Writers Guild is such a strong union is that the “haves” in the union — the showrunners, the people who are at the top of the profession — have consistently looked out for the people who are not even yet maybe W.G.A. members; they’re basically fighting the battles for generations to come. And there is some institutional memory that before the W.G.A. became that kind of union, the studios had their run of writers and we weren’t well compensated and there was no pension plan. There was no medical. We fought for these things and generations before me fought for these things. Are you vocalizing something that there are certain people, some even within my jurisdiction who often feel on their own behalf? No doubt. But those people are pretty well marginalized, and rightly so. The vast majority of my union membership believes in the future; in the fact that the union is a caretaker for the future.
LEVITT: Now, this is not your first strike. Way back when you were at The Baltimore Sun, there was a newspaper strike going on. Right?
SIMON: 1987? That was my first.
LEVITT: What was your experience there?
SIMON: Well, it’s apt for the moment. The newspaper industry was making a vast amount of money at the time. The afternoon papers and some of the weaker sisters had been shaken loose by changes in the industry, but the morning papers in every major city were incredibly profitable. That was right at the dawn of all the buyouts. They were saying, what can we do to maximize our value for a sale to Wall Street? And the one thing they said was, oh, try to get your medical costs down. So here you had 600 employees who were putting out, at that point, I would’ve said one of the top 15 papers in the country, and it was profitable. It was making 25, 26-percent profits. They were saying, “No, get that above 30 a year, then we’ll go put you on the market.” And so one of the facets of doing that was, let’s screw over the employees. So we went out for 10 days and we eventually got a chunk of what we were fighting for back and preserved our medical. And I came out of that 10-day period pretty radicalized. I was a strike captain. And I came out of it with the awareness that you either look out for yourself collectively as a union, or they find ways to take back what you think was always going to be there, even in a time of great affluence. And I don’t think the moment is any different now than I’m in the W.G.A. strike.
LEVITT: Ironically, that strike probably turned out to be the best thing that could ever happen to you, ’cause it wasn’t long after that you took leave to go embed yourself with the homicide unit in Baltimore; changed everything.
SIMON: That’s right. It was months. I actually had the proposal in my drawer of: should I ask the police commissioner if he’ll let me into the homicide unit as an observer. And I hadn’t sent it, but yeah, you’re absolutely right. After that very bitter 10 days where I thought the company had behaved dishonorably, I put in for a year’s leave to go write that book. So all’s well that ends.
LEVITT: So you must have already been in the W.G.A. the last strike, which was 2007. Were you active in that strike as well or were you more in the background?
SIMON: I didn’t really seek out my union involvement until the union basically said, “It’s your turn.” But I was already susceptible to any union message. I know that I was in post or post-production in ’07. I might have even been prepping Generation Kill and finishing season four of The Wire. But I know HBO held me on my production deal ’cause they had to.
LEVITT: Wait, what do you mean by “held me”?
SIMON: Oh, okay, so I’m a producer and I’m a writer. The union represents my writing. And producing is a problematic dynamic for the union, but it’s also a source of our power, which is, you become the final cut. You work on the shows, not just on the writing, but you go to set, you do the post-production, you do the editing. Then you promote the show afterwards. There’s a management function that is legitimately management, and there’s a writing function that is covered by the union, for which you have to honor a union picket line. So it’s pencils down no matter what. You go on strike, don’t write another word. And that should mean, if you’re ethical about it, and I think everyone should be — it means that after the pages go to set, if there’s a change that needs to happen, you don’t do that change, and you regard any director or actor who would make that change without a writer as scabbing; as basically taking union work and doing it themselves. It’s sort of a nebulous moment. Even in editing, if you’re trying to get down to time — you’re trying to get an episode down to 58 minutes, 30 seconds, and you need to cut lines — that’s a form of writing. Editing is writing. I went through it the first time, I think I was in production. I had to be very careful of how I behaved. And for whatever reason, HBO decided not to end the production deal I was on. They kept paying me. Probably because they didn’t want me walking away from my own show when we were three or four months away from airing it. So I was in a different situation. I don’t happen to be shooting anything now, so it’s easier for me to say, pencil’s down completely. And it’s easier for them to say, “Guess what? We’re not paying you as of May 1,” which is what they did. You know, no disrespect to them. We’re in a fight. That’s how we play.
LEVITT: Let’s talk now more specifically about the 2023 writer strike. And just restating the obvious, you represent the writers, and there’s no one here to argue the counterpoint — and I’m certainly no expert, not in any position to argue the counterpoint. Maybe you could just start by explaining who the W.G.A. represents and what the A.M.P.T.P. is the organization you’re bargaining with.
SIMON: Okay, well, we’re the writers who write for and create television and film in America. And the A.M.P.T.P. is the umbrella group that represents the studios that employ us.
LEVITT: So that’s Amazon, Netflix, Disney…
SIMON: Yes. It’s both legacy networks on broadcasting, and it’s also the streamers in the new world of digital television.
LEVITT: Okay, so the quantity of T.V. shows being produced has just exploded over the last decade. Does that mean the W.G.A. membership has skyrocketed as well?
SIMON: I think we’re about 25,000. I think that’s about it. I’m in the W.G.A. East and I know we’re about 5,000 something. I don’t have the exact numbers for the West. They dwarf us, obviously, being situated in Los Angeles. And I’m saying, “T.V. and film.” The vast majority of our members, I think 70 percent, are working in television. That is the predominant medium. There are, some that are working in freelance, as feature writers of film. But by and large, the biggest chunk of our membership is working in television.
LEVITT: But I’m right that the number of hours of T.V. shows being produced has just gone through the roof?
SIMON: Oh yeah. The number of shows has increased. The hours are more content heavy. If they’re on cable, they’re 58 minutes without commercials. They’re not 42 minutes with commercials. So you might assign two writers, or you might give that writer twice the time to write it. He’s no longer knocking off an hour of Manics or Ironsides. He’s writing The Sopranos or he is writing something else of commensurate complexity. And it comes from the creation of a dynamic in which you had rooms of writers, who would devote themselves to the task of telling a story over a period of hours, and then they would execute at a level where they had to have a consistency between episodes and continuity between episodes that required the writer to be in charge — not the director, not the actor, not the studio. It required writer-producers. And if you think you can do it without the writer, that’s a complete misunderstanding of why television in the last decade and a half suddenly became a mature, storytelling vehicle, which it wasn’t. And that’s what made the modern aspect of television as profitable and as meaningful as it’s been, in terms of money. So basically a lot of people in the studios who don’t quite know why this all happened, they just know the shows got better; they kept signing checks to more writers. They now kind of want to do it on the cheap, and they want to end term employment, meaning paying you by the week. If I work 20 weeks on a show, I get this much. If I work 26 weeks, 28 weeks, you get a discount because you’re employing me for more weeks, but you’re still paying me by the week.
LEVITT: So what’s the alternative to term employment?
SIMON: The alternative is, hey, just give us a script for the script fee, which is much less money.
LEVITT: So it’s by the unit?
SIMON: Yeah, it’s by the unit. And what’s happened over the last decade and a half, maybe even two decades, is that writers have been making less. The average writer has been making less because they’re paid for the script, but they’re not held on staff for the same number of weeks. The presumption has been, oh, the showrunner and maybe one or two others will take care of that.
LEVITT: So is it a change from when you started. When you started in the industry, the writers were there. And you as a young writer, you were on set.
SIMON: I was hired by the week and I was given a script fee on top of that once I was story editor. The average number of episodes of a lot of basic and premium cable shows is now six, eight, 10. Used to be 22 for every drama you made on television. Now, there are less script fees to go around and although you’re probably spending more time producing those hours — in fact you are spending more time producing a lot of those hours — the feeling on the part of management was, why don’t we just have the writer’s room on for three or four or five or 10 weeks at the beginning, and you guys break all the story for us, and then we’ll lay you all off. We don’t have to pay you your salary to go to set or to go to editing or to learn any of the business or to even protect your own episodes. We’ll just basically throw that all on the showrunner and maybe one or two other guys, and we’ll pay them. Meanwhile, without the junior writers around to cover some of this work, the showrunners are pulling their hair out, running from editing to set, back and forth. You’re basically on your own. You can’t delegate anything ’cause there’s no one to delegate to. So it’s basically cutting off the future of show running and the future of television writing by not keeping these people on staff. It’s just a way of saving money. And they expect to get the same quality of work and just run a couple people ragged. And meanwhile, the people then they’re telling them, this is the way that if you can defeat term employment, if you can get rid of weekly salaries, and just pay by the script, you can make a lot more television for cheaper. And Wall Street loves that idea. This is coming from the analysts who, when the profit margin slips for even a minute, they say, “Cut costs.” And the costs in this case are human and they’re creative.
We’ll be right back with more of my conversation with television writer David Simon after this short break.
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LEVITT: To an outsider — what’s, I think, completely standard to you, but surprising to me is in this industry that the writers don’t have a job with the studio. Like at a newspaper, right? You have a staff and they’re on staff, and they work for the newspaper 52 weeks a year. It’s really interesting that seems to be completely outside the norm.
SIMON: That’s always been the case.
LEVITT: Yeah, but it’s not like Netflix or HBO are small companies that don’t have a lot of different shows where they could move writers around. It’s just surprising to someone on the outside that isn’t the model you’d adopt for hiring writers.
SIMON: Well, it’s the model at my level. It’s the model at my level because I have a development deal with HBO and I’ve had one for about 25 years — or I guess about 20 years actually — meaning they hire me, they retain me. They’ve retained me for most of that time exclusively, meaning: you come to us with your ideas for shows, we’ll say yes or no, but we’ll keep you around to come up with the ideas and offer them to us first. Beginning with The Wire, they offered me that deal. And so my production company — which is basically me and a couple of employees — has had that deal for a couple of decades now. But when we start a show and we actually get the green light for a show and they say, “Yes, we’re going to make this show and we’re going to go past development into production,” that’s when a production entity gets formed, a company that basically is going to run that show. And they hire the writers to that show.
LEVITT: So what’s interesting about this from an economist’s perspective is the life of a writer — a lot of your life must be schmoozing around and putting out feelers and—
SIMON: Chasing gigs.
LEVITT: Yeah. And that seems really inefficient in a world where, look, just like HBO thinks it makes sense to have you on staff, it just surprises me from an efficiency perspective that HBO wouldn’t say, “Hey, let’s go find 20 amazing writers and let’s lock those guys up and let’s just move ’em around as we need them.” Doesn’t that make basic sense?
SIMON: Well, they’re doing it at the showrunner level.
LEVITT: Yeah. But why not at the writer level? If you were running HBO, wouldn’t you try to find the best 25 writers, offer them certainty and — no? How come?
SIMON: There might be a writer who is so much of a generalist and has such a unique style that you just want to lock him up as a writer. That could be. But a lot of shows that are now on T.V. are idiosyncratic to the actual subject material. This isn’t 1980 where everything’s just a cop show or a medical show; if you’re not writing for Homicide, you’re writing for NYPD Blue — there are a lot of shows that are now intrinsically connected to the world by the fact that their content is unique to a certain aspect. Meaning, I’m going to do a show about L.G.B.T. issues, for example. I’m not just throwing 25 writers onto that show. The same 25 writers, I’m not marching them into this, into the room for The Wire, and then marching them into the room for Treme. When I get ready to do Treme, I’m going to find the people who know the hell out of New Orleans or know about American music. I’ll hook up with writers who know New Orleans, who live there, who have written about it, maybe even in other forms. They don’t need to be television writers. I’ll also hook up with writers who know how to make television, but know New Orleans. And then every now and then I’ll take somebody who’s just — man, he’s just great on set and he’s great in the room and he’ll leaven out the project and, yeah, he’s never been to New Orleans, but I have to think about those things. You just described a world in which all 25 really good writers are equal and they’re not. Story is idiosyncratic and writers are idiosyncratic. And somebody who’s going to be great in one room might be flailing around in another.
LEVITT: Makes sense. Okay, so there have been a series of three-year contracts that are called the minimum basic agreement, and that’s what the bargaining is over. What are the main issues that are covered by this minimum basic agreement?
SIMON: Again, the end to term employment. The idea that they’re trying to minimize term employment. They’re not putting protections in there, while at the same time, they’ve broken it. They’ve actually destroyed the writer’s ability to assure a living wage over time. If you’re a writer in television, you used to be able to get hired by a show and know that you were going to be working for 20 weeks. You could then sustain the fact that maybe 30 other weeks you were working on a freelance piece or hoping another show would go, or looking for another gig. Twenty weeks would at least get you enough to pay your mortgage and to qualify you for medical and get some pension. Now you might get on, they might give you two weeks of a miniroom at the beginning of the show, meaning, “Hey, break a bunch of stories for us in the beginning, but then no more writer’s room. Don’t keep going.” And then maybe you get handed a script, maybe you don’t. There’s some people who have been invited to minirooms and they’ve poured out their ideas and then they haven’t been hired for the show when the show got a script order. It’s as cynical as that. What used to be, “I can guarantee myself I’m going to make 60, 80, 100 thousand this year and qualify for my medical.” Now suddenly, I managed to pull one half of a script fee. Here it is July, and I may not qualify for medical next year because I managed to pull one half of a script and they’re not paying any term employment. So this salvaging and sustaining and improving term employment is issue number one in our fight. And their chief negotiator shrugged her shoulders and said, “You guys are lucky to have any term employment.” That’s a quote, that’s the direct quote.
LEVITT: Okay, so if I understand the nature of the contract what gets negotiated are some minimum amounts that can be paid per script or minimum amount, per week for people doing different jobs. It’s like a minimum wage, but a minimum for this industry. One question that’s of interest to me, and maybe you don’t know the data off hand, but at the current minimums that were negotiated three years ago, are a lot of people actually working at those minimums? Or are those just like really low numbers that help guide the conversation about what people are actually paid?
SIMON: Unless you are hired at a higher level as a producer, in which case you’re being paid for your producorial work as well as for your writing, you’re probably working exactly at the minimums — exactly the stated minimums of your per week salary, if you’re on term employment. Or you’re working for the exact minimum of what they pay for a script for an hour of T.V. If you are paid as a producer, you’ve probably reached a point at which they’re giving you something above the minimums. If you’re a junior producer, for example — and obviously if you’re a showrunner, you’re getting paid well above the minimums — but if you are a junior producer, you’re going to be offered maybe $2-3,000 above what the episodic rate would be. Meaning, if you were paid by the week and it takes them three weeks to shoot this episode, three weeks times, whatever it is, they would put like a little bump above that, so you might be a little bit above the minimum. But the rub of modern television is, it used to take us three weeks to knock out one hour of Manics or Ironside or whatever. Now we’re on set longer. We’re in prep longer. We take longer to cast. It takes us a longer time to stage. We’re not shooting on sound stages 90 percent of the shots. We’re going out and shooting on locations, so we have to scout longer. And so while we paid you ostensibly for three weeks of your time, plus a little bump ’cause you’re now a producer, in truth, if you stretched out how many hours you actually worked, lo and behold you’ve worked six, seven weeks and you’re below the minimum. To which they would say, “We didn’t tell you to work that extra time. Just get it done.”
LEVITT: I saw a report that suggested that the median weekly pay for W.G.A. members has declined 23 percent, inflation adjusted, over the last decade. Does that jive with what you’ve seen, you know, living your life?
SIMON: Yes. We have the same problems in my industry and in my profession that America as a whole does, which is to say, economic inequality has become pronounced. There are people, and I would include myself, who are paid at a very healthy rate to develop and create television shows, and we are a very small percentage of the W.G.A. The vast majority of those people are line writers who get hired by those shows to write episodes and to help shepherd them through the process. I have no complaints about my pay, but again, I’m being paid to be producorial and to develop. If you actually break down what they pay for my script work, I get paid the same minimum as anyone else on my script. One of the things that the A.M.P.T.P. — one of the things they always offer up is, “Do you know the average T.V. writer makes X?” And it always seems like, to the average American, “Oh my God, that’s a lot of money.” But of course, averaged in there, they’re taking all my producorial money and I’m screwing up the mean. I’m so far above what the actual work-a-day writer is making that it’s allowing them to inflate the health of the average writer’s salary.
LEVITT: Yeah. So the median and the mean are far apart. And I’m sure that when they mention statistics, they always talk about the mean, and when you guys talk about statistics, you always talk about the median to make that clear. One thing I couldn’t find so much clean data on was studio profits. It’s hard because many of the major players are divisions embedded in huge companies in lots of other things, like Amazon, Disney. But Netflix is the easiest place to see financials. And in 2022, Netflix had revenues of almost $32 billion and a net income of $4.5 billion. And prior to 2018, Netflix had never had a net profit over a billion dollars. So that at least hints at the studios doing very well financially.
SIMON: Let me hint even more loudly. Just look at the salaries of the C.E.O.s of what they’re being paid. The company where I work, they could give the C.E.O. three quarters of his salary and pay everything out to his writers that the W.G.A. is asking for.
LEVITT: Isn’t there also some sense in the industry that we’re not at an equilibrium, that there’s going to be a shakeout? That the big studios have just been producing enormous amounts of content to try to win market share, and in the long run there’s going to be a lot less? That suggests that they’re not making a ton of money. I find it hard to really see what’s going on.
SIMON: Well, there are some things going on there, too. First, everyone was trying to put everything they had up on streaming services as a means of gleaning audience share. “Here’s everything HBO ever made. You get that when you get HBO. All we ask you to do is subscribe.” Well, they did that to drive subscriptions for a while, but I think other people have figured out that if you take a very expensive show off the air, one that costs you a lot to make, and maybe one where you’ve maximized most of your profits now in terms of your initial broadcasting of it or it’s been out a while and now you’re just getting residual churn on your streaming site, why don’t you take it off and write it off the books? There’s a tax incentive to take an expensive show away and say, “It’s gaining no revenue anymore. It’s completely gone.” And so there are things about the tax law that is encouraging people to say, “No, we have to retrench. We can’t offer up all this content.” That’s going on right now on the streaming logic. But the other thing that’s happening is, yes, to be very fair, there are some streaming services that have made a ton of production in a very small amount of time. And some of these places are going to shake out. And some of the dynamics are going to be — we have to actually have more hits. If we make 10 shows, at least three of them got to make it. You can’t make 20 and have one make it. That’s not cost efficient and that’s their problem. Honestly, that’s not my union’s problem. Nobody’s telling anybody they have to make a show, and that’s the incredible hypocrisy of what they’re saying. They’re saying, “Look, we want to make all this content, we just don’t want to pay you.” And that’s absurd. As somebody who’s done this for his adult career, I want to work on shows that are actually going to have some narrative progression and stay on the air. And so I look at this and I just think, this is your problem. If you guys can run this thing like a bunch of good execs, you’ll have more success with fewer shows and they’ll stay on the air longer, and they’ll employ writers that way. And if you can’t, making a bunch of shows that you knock off after eight episodes, or you blow up after two seasons because it didn’t find any audience because it was ill-conceived or because it was redundant with three other things that networks were doing, that’s just bad management.
LEVITT: The one thing I’m surprised you haven’t mentioned, ’cause I thought it was a big issue, is that the residuals, the royalties that come to writers from streaming — my impression was those are just a trickle compared to what writers used to get in the old days, in the more traditional model. Am I wrong about that or is that—? Can you riff on that a little bit? I’d like to hear about that.
SIMON: Tellingly, I’d say the strike in 2007, they came to us and they said, “Oh, we don’t know what this streaming platform is going to be like. We don’t know what digital is going to be. We don’t know where our revenue stream is going to be. We don’t know if this will work or not. Can’t we just not deal with this now? You’re fighting for residuals and you want some piece of it, but we don’t know enough yet. Can you wait three years or six years? Let’s just start a dialogue.” That was literally their negotiating position back in 2007. We went on strike and we got our foot in the door when it came to residuals on streaming and on digital. Now, it’s still not commensurate with what we were paid when it was re-broadcast on legacy network. But we got our foot in the door, which was why we struck and why we had to strike and why we ended up settling is because we did get that concession then. And thank God we have it, because now we’re trying to go back for a more commensurate piece of the pie.
LEVITT: Roughly what share of the total compensation of writers as a whole is coming from these residuals? Is it 5 percent of the overall compensation? Fifty percent? Just ballpark.
SIMON: When I started on Homicide, which was broadcast, and they were reshowing Homicide episodes in the summer, I would say it added an extra fifth to my income for the year; but of course I was in entry level salaried positions, so the total wasn’t as much. I would say right now, most of my stuff is not re-broadcast anymore. It’s all digital cable rerun. And again, my front end is large because of all the producorial fees, but of the writing share, I’d say it’s about a sixth.
LEVITT: Okay, so I’m just trying to get a sense of how much this shift to streaming has canceled out the downstream for writers. And you’re saying it’s smaller, but it, you know, it hasn’t —
SIMON: Yeah, listen, you still make most of your money from going to work every day and from writing new material. That is and should be the case. But it used to be that residuals from the reuse of your material counted for a much more significant plurality of your writing income than it does now. That’s probably the best way to say it.
LEVITT: So just thinking purely from economic efficiency point of view, it sure seems to me that if anything, now with so many more shows being produced and so many fewer are succeeding, if anything, it would be economically efficient to tie more heavily a writer’s salary to the backend. So put aside the overall level of compensation that a writer gets, it just — it doesn’t make—
SIMON: You’re saying there are no rewards for doing well?
LEVITT: Yeah. And, and I can understand why the studios and the writers are fighting about what the level of compensation should be for the writers. That’s just a zero-sum game. But from the perspective of making the pie as big as possible — which, you would think that the writers and the studio have strong incentives to work together to make the pie as big as possible — that you’d want to leave that back end and make that strong for the writers so you produce something good.
SIMON: It used to be that way that if a show went four or five seasons, it went into serialization and there was a whole bunch of money that came from it being serialized on secondary platforms, in this country and also internationally. And yes, there was an incentive to keep a show going and to have a show be successful. And there was a bump at the back of it that writers managed to achieve. There’s some of that now, of course, with digital, is that, you know, the more call there is for rebroadcast of stuff on digital platforms, then the checks do increase. But they don’t reach that threshold of being like, wow, I had a hit and I hit the jackpot. And there is a call for that. And there are proposals in the W.G.A. platform for our negotiations. They call for that. They call for when you have a certain amount of usage of a show that there should be different rates of compensation.
LEVITT: Yeah, it seems to make sense to me.
SIMON: Listen, there was an interim period where my union completely missed the boat in terms of a platforming. And that was D.V.D.s and V.H.S. sales. And it was in the middle of The Wire‘s run; it mattered greatly to me. But suddenly box sets of television shows, by the season, became an incredible merchandise item. And people were acquiring the shows. And by the time we figured out just how much revenue the studios were making off of this stuff, it was a point at which we realized, oh my God, streaming is coming. And by the time we get a decent, honest share for the reuse and rebroadcast of our material in V.H.S. and D.V.D. form, that market will be dead.
LEVITT: Too late. Yeah.
SIMON: Right. So the decision was made, and I think correctly, by the negotiating committee, by the officers — we missed that one. They slipped that one in on us. They profited greatly. They didn’t share the profits. Now we have to fight for streaming. And that decision was made in ’07, I think, correctly. Nobody’s arguing about the D.V.D. money today because it’s drying up. I’ll tell you, personally, that I was so offended by the reuse of the material and the lack of compensation to writers that, as part of my own personal contract with HBO, I insisted: for every certain number of units sold of D.V.D.s of a show, of that, there had to be a lump sum payment to the writers, and it would be apportioned by credit among my writing staff. And I’ve maintained that in my contract, but that was independent of what the union was able to achieve. And it was basically in frustration that the window was short and it was very profitable and we missed it.
LEVITT: Now, you know a fair amount of economics, right?
SIMON: I don’t know. I took some undergraduate courses.
LEVITT: Yeah. So one of your characters, Stringer Bell, he was also taking economics courses in The Wire, and he had a copy of Adam Smith’s The Wealth of Nations on his shelf.
SIMON: He did.
LEVITT: I’ve been thinking, as we’ve talked today, one of the fundamental problems that writers are facing is there are no barriers to entry to being a T.V. or film writer. Like obviously, you need talent to be a writer. But anyone with talent can compete for the job. So as long as the supply of potential workers is pretty elastic, that is going to limit how much the marginal writer could earn. So even if you were really successful in this negotiation and you got the minimums per script or per week, you got those sky high, if there’s an infinite supply of writers coming, what will happen is that it’ll just mean that the number of weeks worked per writer, for the marginal guys, they’re just going to end up working fewer weeks. And free entry is really a disaster for labor.
SIMON: I think this is why we have a union, which is to say, I’m sorry, but you can’t — you can’t take product from any writer without them joining the W.G.A., without them being in the union. And so the idea that there’s an infinite supply of unheralded, unaccredited writers who are ready to march onto the assembly line — there’s some fundamental protection. That’s why we sign an agreement with the studios that says, “If you’re taking material, you’re taking it from us.”
LEVITT: So the counterpoint is the medical industry and the legal industry have been extremely successful at erecting huge barriers to entry, right? If I want to be a doctor, I got to go to med school, I got to pay a bunch of money. I gotta pass the bar if I want to be a lawyer. And that has the effect of propping up the wages of people in those industries.
SIMON: We don’t have medical school, and we don’t have the A.M.A. and I get it. Writers are writers.
LEVITT: Okay, so I’m not saying it would be good for society, but honestly, for writers, for the existing core writers, if you could figure out how to make the barriers to the new writers much higher, that would probably be the single best way to increase the salaries of writers. It would be bad for the world, but —
SIMON: Bad for the world. Bad for writing. Bad for the content. Look, one of the great things that has started to happen is that an industry that used to be predominated by white male points of view, and that used to be homogeneous when it came to storytelling, has become much more dynamic in terms of allowing other voices in and finding entry points for writers of color, for women, for writers at various points on the gender spectrum. We have started to make progress there. We have a long way to go. But because of the fracturing of the audience and ’cause of the variety of platforms now, a lot of writers who otherwise wouldn’t have had a voice in film and television and in the creation of American filmed narrative are getting a bite at the apple. And that’s elemental and important. And it’s just a moral issue. So the bottom line is: I don’t want to have any kind of gatekeeping as to who gets to walk into a room and sell something or get hired by a studio. The place where you have to fight is this: You say, once you’re hired, “The job means X, not Y.” Not everyone’s going to get hired. Not everyone’s going to get in. Studios still get to decide how many shows they make, but once they make a show and they order up a certain number of hours of television and that constitutes a certain amount of work, they need to hire a certain number of writers. If when you’re a writer, you get that first job and instead of working three weeks in a mini-room and getting a half a script assignment at best, and not being able to even qualify for medical or for pension — if instead you end up getting a guarantee of at least 12 weeks or 14 weeks — does that mean that maybe it would be less of a gig economy? Yes, probably. It would be like when you get that first gig, it’s meaningful, but it’s harder to get that first gig. But I would take that deal in a heartbeat. I believe most of the W.G.A. officers would. The idea is that when you hire a writer, it has to be a meaningful hire. It has to be a hire that this man or woman can make a career out of because the next year they might not get hired on a show. It is a gig economy. Some parts of that will never change because that’s what it is. But the fact that you can get hired and your ideas can be plucked from you and then you may or may not get a script assignment, you’re definitely not going to be able to hang around and watch production and learn the job — that’s the more mission critical disaster that is confronting us as a union in terms of our younger membership.
LEVITT: Can I ask you a more general question about your experiences on the ground with bargaining? Economic theory suggests that a good negotiation will figure out what deal makes the pie to be split between the two parties as big as possible. And both parties want the biggest possible pie. Everyone’s interests are aligned on that dimension to figure out what’s efficient. And then you get to the hard part after you’ve made the pie as big as possible is figuring out, of the two sides, how you’re going to split that pie, who gets what share. From an economic perspective, that seems really straightforward and obvious, but do you find that in the messy reality of actual negotiations, there’s so much ill will and posturing that it’s impossible to work together to find a deal that maximizes that combined pie?
SIMON: That would sound like I was going to both sides of this and I’m not. We are the sainted and anointed emissaries of honest labor. And these sons of b****es are just greed heads. And I don’t know why you would expect me to say anything other than that. I’m saying that only ’cause I believe it. I think what we’re asking for is reasonable.
LEVITT: Overall, the writers are, I don’t know, 5, 10 percent of the cost total. It’s interesting that the industry is willing to let the whole process of production stop, to grind to a halt, over an input that’s 5 or 10 percent of the cost.
SIMON: Right. And I’ll tell you what has become certain and fixed in my mind is that none of the people across the table from us know what it means to write, know how the writing gets done, and how once the writing gets done, it gets translated and effectuated as quality television, or even moderately quality television. And the great evidence of that in so many ways is their aspirations of putting A.I. to use to create their product on the cheap.
LEVITT: Do you think in the background of all of this is that the studio execs are thinking, look, these writers are a pain in the ass. Let’s just replace writers with A.I. It might take a few years before A.I. is good enough, but then, oh man, life will be so good when we’re done with writers and we just have A.I.
SIMON: There’s that old joke. I think they told it in The Player, which is: they’re complaining about the pain in the ass writer who’s just insisting on solving a problem in the script. They fire him or they get rid of him and they say, “That was easy.” And they look at each other and they say, “If we get rid of the actors, we really got something going here.” And the actors are incredibly vulnerable to A.I. Look at all of the sound work already that is now going to actors who are no longer alive. The truth is, there has always been a healthy contempt for the creative element in this industry — not on the part of everybody, and I’ve had good relationships with people at the studios and certainly there have been moments in my career where I’ve been very grateful for working with somebody who understood the complexity of what we were trying to do. I am generalizing here, but certainly the people who are closer to the Wall Street analysts and the people who are closer to the money side of this and the people who are running the studios, I don’t think they have a clue what it is that writers do or why it isn’t that somebody can take a pen in hand or an app on a computer and just knock out some lines and tell the freaking story and be gone. And the idea that filmmaking is so intrinsically tied to the writing and that the writing as a process continues all the way through filmmaking — everything from finding the right locations to amending the script to getting the right actor to having to change things because that actor’s not available. Every time I finish a script, I look at it and I go, “And what will you be by the time we finish shooting you?” Writing is a constant. The script means nothing until it’s filmed. And I think you deal with a lot of people who are more enamored of Wall Street and the bottom line and delivering that 30 percent profit margin to the analyst so that you can get your bonus and you can go to the golf club and tell people that you made your number. I think that’s the world in which they live, and the idea that this is an intensely creative and dynamic mode of storytelling and that it’s hard work and that not everybody can do it is elusive.
You’re listening to People I (Mostly) Admire with Steve Levitt and his conversation with television writer David Simon. After this short break, they’ll return to talk about artificial intelligence.
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I want to end the conversation today talking about artificial intelligence. I have to admit, I was really surprised to hear that allowable uses of A.I. is seen as one of the most important issues being bargained over. I’m so curious to hear David Simon’s take on this.
LEVITT: Let’s go back to A.I., ‘cause I know you are very stridently against A.I. in writing. And one question is A.I. any good? Can A.I. write a good script? And the answer is probably right now, no, that A.I.’s not at that level. In the short run, people tend to think that a really skillful human interacting with A.I. might be better than a human alone, and definitely will be better than A.I. alone. So I can imagine there’s this intermediate ground that might last for a short amount of time, or it might last forever, in which it’s a partnership between humans and this artificial intelligence, which are able to produce good things.
SIMON: I think the people that have put their faith in A.I. as being able to produce anything that isn’t derivative — even derivative on a high level, but nonetheless derivative — they may say that, oh, well, I don’t understand the new technology. I think they don’t understand writing. I don’t think they understand the human element in storytelling. I think they don’t understand what we do. First of all, there is a lot of derivative television. I am not somebody who’s here to tell you that we’re in the golden age and that everybody’s making television of a superior nature to any other period before. There’s a lot more good television, there’s a lot more adult narrative available to people. There’s also a lot more crap. Are we going to get to the point where A.I. can write a derivative hour of action drama on the level of — I’m not going to name a current show because —
LEVITT: Yeah, I wanted to know who you’re going to disparage. I was waiting to hear that.
SIMON: I do not want to insult anyone.
LEVITT: Gilligan’s Island, maybe.
SIMON: They can, they can write The A Team. I don’t think we’re that far from that. And to the extent that there is some portion of the T.V. audience that will be sated by increasingly reductive, increasingly repetitive, increasingly formulaic — and when I say increasingly formulaic of something like The A Team, I’m really saying something. But, yeah, are there people who would be content with that? Sure, you would get some eyeballs. But you wouldn’t be able to drive the subscription rate, I don’t think, the way places like HBO and Netflix and other places have done so over the past 20 years because you would be seeing a very clever regurgitation, a re-vomiting of all that has been already said before, at best. And I think what actually excites the human mind is feeling like you’re seeing some new argument or new rhetoric or new narrative delivered.
LEVITT: So when the W.G.A. is fighting against A.I. in this negotiation, it sounds like the premise you have is that the studio execs have an exaggerated view of what A.I. could do, and they’re going to basically phase out the writers, thinking A.I. is much better than it is. And our way of defending the industry and ourselves against that mistake is to try to write into the rules limits on how A.I. can be used. Is that like a fair statement of where you guys have come from?
SIMON: Steve, I have been through this once before. I have had a similar horse shot out from under me, which is in newspapers. If you don’t think they came for the veteran reporters, for the people who knew their city, who could break news stories, who understood how not to take the first answer from politicians or public figures, and they valued them and they wanted to exalt them, and they wanted to make better newspapers, not worse — if you think that was Wall Street’s mantra, at any point, you’re insane. They came to the point of saying, “We understand that we will make more money with a newsroom of a hundred people, many of whom are recent hires, hired at lower wages and without the seniority, than we will in the newsroom of 450 people in Baltimore who are going to really cover the city. And people will still take this and we’ll still make money. And we have a market share that is reliably ours.” I’ve been there before. The notion that how good, and what really do you people do, and why are you a cost center to me — that’s pre-eminent. There are people who are thinking, “We can do this for a lot cheaper. We can get rid of the writers.” And I think they’re saying we can make more money putting out bad television than we can putting out good. In the short term, there may be places where they’re right. I think in the long term for the overall health of the industry, they’re digging their own grave And so the fight’s to have now and say, no. Look, if I want to plug in an A.I. function on my computer and play with it while I’m working on my script, I’m basically playing with it the same way I play with a thesaurus or a dictionary. I’m saying, “Oh, what would you do with this line of dialogue?” Or whatever. And I’ll see what the derivative source of other writers comes up with for the clever line. And that’s still me making a choice. But there is one element that I find to be incredibly offensive because, look, I’ve written about 200 scripts that are now property of the studios, either NBC or HBO I consider it a violation of my work product and my copyright because I’m not being paid for that reuse and that reuse wasn’t negotiated in my contract ever.
LEVITT: You’re saying of how the A.I. are trained, they’re trained on those scripts and, and that’s your intellectual property. You’re not being compensated for.
SIMON: They’re not only being trained on those scripts, my script is in the amalgam of what they will then spit out as the product of A.I. and not the product of a living human writer, and certainly not of my product. I realize that it’s mangled up in everybody else’s work.
LEVITT: No, it’s a complicated problem that hasn’t been talked about very much.
SIMON: Ethically, they didn’t negotiate those terms with me and get me a lawyer. If thing goes forward. Listen, they can’t show episodes of Homicide now on Peacock because they didn’t properly negotiate future platforms for all the music that’s embedded in those episodes. Yeah. And I think that’s right. Go back to the musicians. Say, look, we have this new platform, we never asked you for it. We’ll pay you a little more money. It’s your music. We should do this, and then we’ll show it on our streaming channel. But they don’t, ’cause that would be gratifying some cost center that they don’t see as human. So do I think they’re ethically above and beyond taking all of my work product and regurgitating it and mixing it with up with that of George Pelecanos or David Chase or David Milch, David Mills, and all the other writers that I love and respect and spitting it back out and using it for fun and profit? Again, back in 2007 when we came to them about the streaming platform and said, “We need our fair share of this new platform for residuals.” They said, “We don’t know what this new technology is. Nobody knows. Can’t we just talk about it? Do we have to come to some sort of agreement now?” And we had to go on strike. Now at this negotiation, they’re saying, “We don’t know what A.I. is about. It could be nothing. Why do we have to make rules now? Let’s wait three years.” Look, I don’t trust ‘em as far as I can throw ’em. And I think you’re a fool if you do.
LEVITT: Has this gotten really personal for you? Do you see the strike ending and you going back to HBO and business as usual? Or do you foresee something very different for yourself?
SIMON: I actually like the people I work with at HBO. Look, I’ve had 25 years there. But my personal relationships are my personal relationships. These are arguments on an economic level and on an ethical and even social-political level that have to be had. I regard collective bargaining as an ordinary part and a healthy part of the economic process.
LEVITT: So for you this — when this done, this is done. You’re not a grudge holder. You’re ready to go back and go to work.
SIMON: I don’t know what the future holds, but I certainly feel like I have more stories to tell, and I’d love to tell ’em if the chance arises. But I do know, when you’re on the line, you fight. And when you need a contract that’s fair, you fight. And when the fight’s over and you get what you got, then you go to work for three years and then when the next contract comes around, you try to get what you need and what you deserve again. That’s the way this works.
LEVITT: We’re talking today on June 15th. What do you think the chances are the strike ends in the next month, say?
SIMON: I heard a very funny thing. It may be apocryphal, but somebody, the vice president of the East, she assured me the other day that she had it on good authority that all of the rental yachts from Santa Barbara down to San Diego had been rented through the end of summer.
LEVITT: Implying that nothing was going to happen until the summer was over?
SIMON: All the, all the execs are gone for the summer. I don’t know if that’s true or not. What I do feel is that this is being dictated by Wall Street and by the people who answer to Wall Street. And their metrics are ambitious in the sense of preserving A.I. and eliminating term employment for film and T.V. writers. They have a ways to go before they give up on that notion. And they’re going to spend the summer, at least, inflicting pain on us as we walk the line. And only until the such time as we start burning off whatever excess of production we’ve left them with for broadcast, only until that such time as they start seeing their audiences wobble and seeing the churn in terms of their subscriptions on the cable and streaming platforms, until they start seeing that go a little bit negative or become static, and realize they’re going to need some more content soon. And I think that means several months on the line. I do.
I’m reflecting on this conversation and a lot of things come to mind. First, it’s surprising to me that neither side seems to have tried very hard to avoid the strike. Strikes are costly to everyone, I would have imagined frenzied, around the clock negotiations to try to avoid one. But it doesn’t seem like that was the case. I wonder why. It’s also interesting to me, but not actually very surprising how little the real-world bargaining resembles what economic theory predicts. If you were a longtime listener, you might recall episode 80 in which economist Barry Nalebuff laid out a very logical economic approach to bargaining. But when I proposed that to David Simon, he responded by calling the people on the other side of the table sons of b****es and greed heads. And finally, I’m really mesmerized by this A.I. issue. I can certainly understand why the writers are afraid of A.I., but I do not think that history has been very kind to groups that have fought technological advances rather than embrace them. On that one we’ll just have to wait and see. But at the rate that A.I. seems to be advancing, we might not have to wait very long.
LEVITT: And now it’s time for our listener question and I welcome Morgan on to challenge me with a question today.
LEVEY: Hi Steve. A listener wrote in with a question about using storytelling to promote work. The listener was referencing our past episode with ecologist Suzanne Simard, who talked about the importance of using storytelling to discuss her own work, so that she could reach a wider audience. Do you believe that storytelling is a legitimate practice for scientists to use to talk about their work? And have your views on that changed over time?
LEVITT: So let me start with academics and then I want to turn to public policy. But in academics, I started my career at Harvard and M.I.T. in Cambridge. And the ethos there was when you presented your academic work, the real goal was to convince everybody you were right. And so it was a debate, it was a game. And the idea was that you should use every trick or technique you could to leave the audience thinking you were right. And I’ll tell you, I wasn’t very good at that. I didn’t win a lot of debates. The people in the audience were always smarter than me, and I really hated that idea. So when I moved to Chicago, I decided to try something different and instead of trying to be persuasive, instead of trying to win. I would just show people the facts, and I would invite the audience to come up with a reasonable interpretation of the facts, and I would really work side by side with the audience, just guiding them to come to the right conclusion. It was a completely different approach, and it wasn’t designed to make people think I was super smart or I had the right answer. It was designed to make them think that I was open and honest and cared about the truth because those were three things that were all accurate about how I wanted to do scholarship. And I found that moving away from storytelling in that domain was really effective. Now, of course that’s very different than trying to influence public policy, and I think anyone who’s been around public policy knows that a sensible statement of the facts doesn’t usually win in public policy debates. What wins are either soundbites that capture people’s imagination or stories or anecdotes, and so if I am involved in a public policy debate, I absolutely will use soundbites, but my soundbites will be based on facts. And I’ll tell stories. I’ll tell stories about people. I’ll tell anecdotes — which are, again, true, but they’re obviously very partial stories because they’re about a particular person or a particular incident. Now, Suzanne Simard has a real problem in that she wants to push forward her agenda on trees, on forests, and I challenge you to tell a good story about a tree. So she’s done something which, in a scientific sense, is iffy. What she’s done is she very much anthropomorphizes the trees. She talks about the mother tree, and taking care of its young, and these are things that are kind of true. They’re in the spirit of her data, but they’re really not what her scientific papers are saying. So it’s dicey what she does. I think it’s worked. I think it’s worked really well. She’s gotten enormous amounts of attention and I think the spirit of what she’s doing is exactly right. She’s taking scientific results and making them interesting. But I can definitely see how it gets into a gray area where some people might say, “Oh, scientists shouldn’t be doing that. That’s too much.”
LEVEY: Do you believe that this version of storytelling — is to an extent what we do on this podcast. You’re adhering to facts, but you’re also learning about the person, hearing anecdotes, trying to bring the research to life a little bit more.
LEVITT: That’s a really interesting way of putting it, Morgan, because I actually have a trick I use on this show, which is that when I know my guest’s research and I look over the totality of it, there’re often little bits and pieces that strike me as interesting and important, and maybe interpretations of the research that they might not share completely. And I often ask questions in a very particular way because I want the guest to describe their research in the way that supports my view of their research. And especially with economists — if you go back and re-listen to me talking to economists, oftentimes they’ll say something completely different than what I hoped or expected they’d say, and I ask ’em again and maybe even again. And finally, I usually — through very subtle changes in wording, whatnot — I can get them to say what I want them to say. So on this show, that’s the primary form of storytelling that I do. It’s not that I actually tell the stories; it’s that I try to ask the question in a particular way to elicit the stories. I would say that is the primary form of storytelling that I try to engage in on this show.
LEVEY: Thank you for writing in. If you have a question for us, our email is PIMA@freakonomics.com. That’s P-I-M-A@freakonomics.com. We read every email that’s sent and we look forward to reading yours.
We’ll be back next week with a bonus episode. Sal Khan will talk about his first-year experiences launching the Khan World School. And in two weeks I’ll be talking with artist Wendy MacNaughton. I’m definitely stepping out of my comfort zone on that one. She will be the very first artist that I’ve had on this show.
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People I (Mostly) Admire is part of the Freakonomics Radio Network, which also includes Freakonomics Radio, No Stupid Questions, and The Economics of Everyday Things. All our shows are produced by Stitcher and Renbud Radio. This episode was produced by Morgan Levey with help from Lyric Bowditch, and mixed by Jasmin Klinger. Our theme music was composed by Luis Guerra. We can be reached at email@example.com, that’s P-I-M-A@freakonomics.com. Thanks for listening.
LEVITT: Look, I’ll trust your memory over mine, so forget about that. No problem.
SIMON: That could be a fool’s errand too. You know, it’s a lot of shows ago.
- David Simon, screenwriter, television producer, and member of the Writers Guild of America 2023 negotiating committee.
- “W.G.A. Negotiations — Status as of May 1, 2023,” by the Writers Guild of America (2023).
- “Are Streaming Residuals Being Slashed? As W.G.A.’s Own Data Shows, It’s Complicated,” by David Robb (Deadline, 2023).
- “Can an A.I. Program Really Write a Good Movie? Here’s a Test,” by Stuart Heritage (The Guardian, 2023).
- “Despite Streaming Boom, Median Writer Pay Has Fallen in Last Decade, W.G.A. Report Says,” by Anousha Sakoui (Los Angeles Times, 2023).
- “Peak T.V. Climbs Again in 2022, Nearly Reaches 600 Scripted Series,” by Rick Porter (The Hollywood Reporter, 2023).
- “W.G.A. West Inclusion & Equity Report Finds “Significant” Gains By Women & People Of Color,” by David Robb (Deadline, 2022).
- “A Secretive Hedge Fund Is Gutting Newsrooms: Inside Alden Global Capital,” by McKay Coppins (The Atlantic, 2021).
- “Strike Over ‘New Media Pie’ Could Cripple Hollywood,” by John Scott Lewinski (Wired, 2007).
- “Guild Employees Strike at Baltimore Sun,” by Chris Spolar (The Washington Post, 1987).
- “How Smart Is a Forest?” by People I (Mostly) Admire (2023).
- “Do Unions Still Work?” by Freakonomics Radio (2022).
- “Get Your Share of the Pie,” by People I (Mostly) Admire (2022).
- The Plot Against America, miniseries by David Simon and Ed Burns (2020).
- The Deuce, T.V. series by David Simon and George Pelecanos (2017-2019).
- Treme, T.V. series by David Simon and Eric Ellis Overmyer (2010-2013).
- The Wire, T.V. series by David Simon (2002-2008).
- Homicide: Life on the Street, T.V. series by Paul Attanasio (1993-1999).
- Homicide: A Year on the Killing Streets, by David Simon (1991).