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Strike Watch: How Social Media Could Be a Potent Weapon for WGA

Variety logo Variety 5/1/2017 Todd Spangler
© Provided by Variety

In the nearly 10 years since the last Hollywood writers strike, social media has exploded into a sprawling, multibillion-user universe — platforms that have served as megaphones for grassroots causes and activists of all stripes.

Now the Writers Guild of America is nearing a Monday midnight deadline to resolve its differences with studios on a new contract. So does social media give the union more leverage this time around in waging what the WGA portrays as a David-and-Goliath fight?

Maybe.

The guild, as part of making its case in the court of public opinion, today can harness the reach of Twitter and Facebook, which were both in their infancy during the 100-day strike in 2007-08. It is also likely to have the backing of a host of notable actors and celebrities sympathetic to writers.

Ten years ago, WGA members turned to blogs, Google Docs and email networks to help orchestrate strike-related activities and to keep members up to date in real time. YouTube videos were also widely circulated to help the writers make their case during the strike. Those tools, cutting-edge at the time, seem almost quaint in the current landscape.

But some industryites believe that no amount of tweets, shares or likes will really be able to pressure the Alliance of Motion Picture and Television Producers to budge on what boils down a business negotiation to thrash out brass-tacks labor issues.The biggest cudgel the WGA wields is the threat of its members walking off the job. And if there’s a protracted strike, the pain points for media companies will be lost viewers and disrupted production schedules — not an avalanche of hashtags.

Still, another difference now versus a decade ago is the greater visibility of TV showrunners and creators, some of whom are stars in their own right. Creative types like Shonda Rhimes, Joss Whedon, Lee Daniels, Jenji Kohan, Vince Gilligan and David Simon are household names (well, in certain households). On social media, they could rally populist support for the WGA’s positions if the picket lines form.

During the last writers’ strike, “it was a battle between two competing largely faceless groups: writers versus studios,” said Peter Csathy, founder and chairman of Creatv Media, an investment and advisory consultancy. “Now those writers are individual creators who have direct connections with their audience.”

“In the entertainment industry specifically, social has removed the fourth wall and given greater visibility to the people behind the scenes, like writers,” added Andrew Caravella, VP of strategy and brand engagement for Sprout Social, a social-media management software vendor.

However, the spat may just be too much inside baseball for regular consumers to cotton to. The WGA’s demands include increases in healthcare and pension contributions, along with relatively arcane points like addressing studio-exclusivity provisions and “the pernicious effects of short seasons” on writers’ livelihoods.

Moreover, the union has a relatively tiny social footprint. WGA West has just 19,700 Twitter followers and slightly more than 10,500 likes on Facebook, and WGA East has only about 9,900 followers on Twitter and about 11,800 Facebook likes. Less than 24 hours before the strike deadline, the Twitter account established to promote the WGA’s positions in the talks, @WGAPerspective, had 1,043 followers on Monday morning.

So far, most comments on social media about the potential WGA strike seem to revolve around sentiments of hope that a work stoppage can be avoided. There’s also an errant meme flitting around the twittersphere that the last writers’ strike led to a surge in reality programming, including “The Apprentice” — ultimately leading to Donald Trump’s ascension to the White House. This is wrong: NBC premiered “The Apprentice” in January 2004, almost four years prior to the last WGA walkout.

Explicitly pro-WGA tweets have included actress Emmy Rossum’s post last week: “As actors, we are nothing without writers. #WGAunity.”

The social floodgates could open in the event of a strike, stoking resentment against studios perceived as greedy and unfair.

Undeniably, social media has continued to raise awareness and spur movements among diverse groups of people. Look no further than the recent United Airlines passenger-deplaning scandal and Pepsi’s ill-conceived ad featuring Kendall Jenner for examples of how quickly blunders can ignite raging anti-corporate wildfires.

If viewers start missing their late-night TV shows, which would be among the first productions hurt by a strike, the WGA and its sympathizers could have fresh ammo in their arsenal.

And if outrage toward Hollywood studios reaches fever pitch, “it would be better to get things resolved fast than having that potent social-media machine gain even more power with time,” said Csathy.

Pictured above: WGA pickets on Hollywood Boulevard on Nov. 20, 2007.

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