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TV writer David Simon weighs in on the Writers Guild of America strike

ARI SHAPIRO, HOST:

Every industry changes with new technology, and changes to the TV industry are one reason writers are on strike right now. So to get some perspective on what the evolution looks like and what impact this has had on writers, David Simon is here in the studio with us. He created "The Wire" and has overseen production of many TV series. He's also a member of the Writers Guild of America's Negotiating Committee. Thanks for coming in to offer your view.

DAVID SIMON: Thanks for having me.

SHAPIRO: So you started writing for TV nearly 30 years ago. What are the specific things that you think made your life more comfortable than writers starting today?

SIMON: Oh, well, for one thing, 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 was - 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 - well, everybody had more experience than me. I was a police reporter at the time. But Tom did other things. He sent me to set - to cover set and to protect the script on set. He sent me to casting. He sent me - you know, 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.

SHAPIRO: Inviting young people into a writer's room with more experienced writers, bringing people onto set - those sound like good actions for a mentor to take with a mentee. Should they be written into a contract?

SIMON: Absolutely.

SHAPIRO: If something doesn't require a certain number of writers to get the job done, why should a studio be required to hire that number?

SIMON: Well, they never did. It was never written into the contract because it was always assumed that this was a viable form. Why has that changed? It's changed because of greed. I mean, you now have Wall Street analysts and CEOs who are basically saying, if we can make television for cheaper, let's try.

SHAPIRO: Well, the other way of describing that would be, if a show requires five people, why should we be required to have 10?

SIMON: Nobody's saying you should have 10. They're now saying that there should be no fundamental standard for any. And showrunners - people who have - doing the job of producing and running the show - have been left alone on set and in post-production.

SHAPIRO: Can you give me another example or two of something that was standard when you began that, today, is no longer the case...

SIMON: Of course.

SHAPIRO: ...That you think makes beginning writers at a disadvantage?

SIMON: Of course. I can entice somebody who is a good writer, who knows how to write dialogue and move pages and can write for a television show that is complex and sophisticated and, you know, can sustain itself narratively over 12 episodes if I can offer them some decent employment. But if a studio comes to me and says, look, we're just going to have a mini room - you know? - you...

SHAPIRO: People might not be familiar with the term mini room. Explain that.

SIMON: A preproduction room that might go 6 or 8 or 10 weeks, or maybe only three weeks. And they say, give us all your ideas. And oh, by the way, then go off on your own and write a script. Or they might not even say write a script 'cause there's money in the script fee, too. They might say, thanks for your ideas. We're not hiring you. But thanks for participating in our room. Go with God.

Nobody who wants to make a living writing television is going to be able to be sustained that way. You can't live on three weeks' salary. That's what's happening now. 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.

SHAPIRO: So you're arguing writers should be paid by the time commitment rather than by the episode.

SIMON: Good news - it's called term employment, and that is what this strike is about. 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 writer's work, and we do it on set. And it's why television got - was able to get to the place of sophistication that it did.

SHAPIRO: Let's talk about residuals.

SIMON: Sure.

SHAPIRO: You get checks from "The Wire," which started production more than 20 years ago. And if that show debuted today on a streaming service, how would the checks that you get look different?

SIMON: They'd be tiny. They'd be tiny. The amount of streaming residuals that we've gotten as compared to broadcast is relatively minimal, and we have to fight our way to a better and more plausible formula with the studios. And we had to do that with cable when it first arrived, and we have to do that with every technology. Every time a new technology comes in, the greed says, oh, you know, we don't know how much we're going to make with this. We don't know whether it's actually viable.

This is what they said to us in the last strike in 2007. They said, we don't know about this streaming thing. We don't know if this is the future. We're not sure. Give us three more years or six - well, we agree to talk about it. That's literally what they said. And we said, no, the future is now. And we went on strike. We got our foot in the door, and that's why we have some measure of address over streaming residuals. But we need more. We need the formulas to become plausible and compensate us for the fact that this is now the delivery system for a lot of the content.

SHAPIRO: OK, so you've spent your career creating television without AI, and I could imagine today you thinking, boy, I wish I had had that tool to solve those thorny problems...

SIMON: What?

SHAPIRO: ...Or saying...

SIMON: You imagine that?

SHAPIRO: ...Boy, if that had existed, it would have screwed me over.

SIMON: I don't think AI can remotely challenge what writers do at a fundamentally creative level.

SHAPIRO: But if you're trying to transition from scene five to scene six, and you're stuck with that transition, you could imagine plugging that portion of the script into an AI and say, give me 10 ideas for how to transition this.

SIMON: I'd rather put a gun in my mouth.

SHAPIRO: You would rather put a gun in your mouth?

SIMON: I mean, what you're saying to me, effectively, is there's no original way to do anything and...

SHAPIRO: No.

SIMON: Yes, you are.

SHAPIRO: That seems like a kind of absolutist take.

SIMON: Not only I think is it a fundamental violation of the integrity of writers and also of copyright to - you know, when I sold all the scripts I sold, you know, 150 to HBO and, you know, maybe another 50 to NBC, I didn't sell them so that they could be thrown into a computer with other people's and be used again by a corporation. So...

SHAPIRO: So would you ever agree to a contract that saw any role for AI at all?

SIMON: No. I would not.

SHAPIRO: Huh.

SIMON: 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.

SHAPIRO: Do you think that position is where this is likely to end up?

SIMON: 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.

SHAPIRO: You've been through past writer's strikes. Were there lessons those experiences taught you that you think are relevant today?

SIMON: Oh, yeah. The one that is fundamental today is they are now telling us, we don't know what AI is. We don't know how good it's going to be. Let's not litigate what AI can do, what it can't do.

SHAPIRO: You think they're hiding their cards.

SIMON: Of course. They did the same thing in 2007 when it was streaming. And so yeah, this is - we're having the same exact fight as in 2007. Technology is different, but the fight has to be the same. It's going to be a long fight. I think this is going to go on a while. This is the fight. This is now. This has to happen now.

SHAPIRO: David Simon is a TV writer and showrunner known for "The Wire," "Homicide," "Treme" and more. He's also a member of the Writers Guild of America's Negotiating Committee. Thank you so much for coming into the studio.

SIMON: Oh, thank you for having me. It's been fun.

SHAPIRO: And next week, we'll hear the view from the studio's perspective.

(SOUNDBITE OF THE BLIND BOYS OF ALABAMA'S "WAY DOWN IN THE HOLE") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Ari Shapiro has been one of the hosts of All Things Considered, NPR's award-winning afternoon newsmagazine, since 2015. During his first two years on the program, listenership to All Things Considered grew at an unprecedented rate, with more people tuning in during a typical quarter-hour than any other program on the radio.
Rose Friedman is an Associate Editor for NPR's Arts, Books & Culture desk. She edits radio pieces on a range of subjects, including books, pop culture, fine arts, theater, obituaries and the occasional Harry Potter-check-in. She is also co-creator of NPR's annual Book Concierge and the podcast recommendation site Earbud.fm. In addition, Rose has edited commentaries for the network, as well as regular features like This Week's Must Read on All Things Considered.