Gurin’s view from between the battle lines

As the strike action by the Writers Guild of America (WGA) continues to polarise the industry, it’s unusual to find somebody with a foot in both camps.

As president and CEO of LA prodco The Gurin Company and member of the Alliance of Motion Picture & Television Producers, you wouldn’t immediately think Phil Gurin would be siding with those on picket lines. But he has also been a member of the WGA since he was at university and is very firmly behind its current course of action.

“The strike by the WGA in the US is coming at an existential time for the entire industry, especially the writers,” says the producer of shows including Fridge Wars, The Singing Bee and Lingo.

“What’s wonderful is the guild is getting support from the other guilds – directors, screen actors, teamsters and so on. They all see, because of AI [artificial intelligence] and the reduction in viewers, that it’s a pivotal time. Networks and streamers are not making the profit they want to make but people have to make a living.

“Every union is important – you need a craftsperson, you need a driver, you need an actor, a director – but none of it happens without an idea, and that comes from a writer. Writing the ideas is the lifeblood of the entire business.”

Writers being out on strike will obviously hit the drama business hard, and that has led many to surmise that it could be a boom time for unscripted. The last major WGA walkout in 2007 gave birth to the reality TV boom in the US and trendspotters have been waiting to see what might emerge from the current crisis.

But Gurin does not see history repeating itself.

“Unscripted is generally not seen as being ‘WGA,’ but I try to make as many of my shows in the US as possible because I’m a passionate supporter of the WGA,” he says.

“With the gameshows and reality shows I’ve done over the years, we go out of our way to support writers because they want to earn a real living. It’s irritating to see giant corporations taking it out on writers, because without writers there would be no shows.

“People talk about whether there will be more unscripted shows. The answer is no. We have a strike now for a few weeks; these companies are not suddenly ordering shows. In fact, they’re thrilled they don’t have to spend as much money right now. They’re all hoping this goes on long enough that they can cut shows and deals they don’t want to keep any more, cut some overall deals, cut writers. You’ll see all that. Producers are not rushing back to the table, it’s a culling. They’ve been culling their own staff and now [they are asking] how can they cut big, expensive overall deals.”

With corporations looking to cut costs anyway and large numbers of layoffs sweeping the industry, coupled with the rise of AI and chatbots potentially capable of doing the job of writers, fears have been expressed that choosing this moment to strike could mean writers cutting their own throats. Gurin, however, says these factors are exactly why now is the right time to walk out.

“I voted to strike with them, I think 98% voted to strike, because it’s existential,” he says. “A writer used to make 13 episodes; now they make six. It’s the same six months of work for a lot less money. We all know the issues of AI. Call me in six months, the business will be radically different. You have to protect people and their families; people have a right to do the work they love in an environment that’s safe.

Phil Gurin’s The Singing Bee format

“We know these chatbots and AI have learned from thousands and thousands of hours of content. In Hollywood, nobody knows anything. If everybody knew everything there’d be no failures. AI is trying to Moneyball-algorithm its way into creativity and maybe there won’t be failures.”

Gurin has seen for himself how AI can come up with passable ideas for shows. “I said to a friend of mine, a sitcom writer, ‘Put in this [AI] prompt,’ which was a stupid idea. Ten minutes later she came back and said, ‘I put in your prompt and it wasn’t terrible. I’ve worked on shows that were worse.’

“Is it a variation of Frankenstein? Have we created a monster? Is this a different kind of life we’re creating? Could it take over creativity? Let’s talk in six months.”

Gurin is a longstanding member of the board at formats rights protection agency FRAPA and says AI is causing particular headaches in that arena.

“It’s a scary time as co-chair of FRAPA, because how can we protect formats from AI?,” he says, regarding the potential for AI-driven copycatting. “Will AI make it just different enough so it’s different enough in a court of law? FRAPA has a scoring system and there is a certain threshold where if it’s above this number it’s probably a copy. A chatbot developing a reality show can probably figure out where that threshold is and keep it original. That’s a scary proposition.”

In general, he describes the current state of the formats business as “exciting, slightly overwhelming and radically confusing.”

“It’s exciting because people are trying new things, you’re hearing about people trying new things all over the place. Some things will work, some won’t – that’s great,” he says. “We want them to try something new. We don’t mind it when they do revivals because that’s part of the library value of the business and if you’re not distributing and remaking classic shows, there’s no value to your library.

“What is happening when you talk to US buyers is a diminishing of eyeballs. Teenage boys and their friends don’t watch TV anymore, they’re watching Tik Tok and other shortform, so it’s scary. You talk to buyers here and even though there is a lot of airtime for reality, entertainment and classic formats, they don’t order that many new ones each year. It’s very rare to see more than two or three new shows put on by the biggest platforms here in the US. The only healthy thing for the business is having room for ‘new.’ You have to have commissioners willing to try new things.”

Original formats are also key to tackling the problem of a diminishing audience being spread thinly across ever more channels, cablenets, streamers and now FAST channels, in Gurin’s opinion.

“Broadcast, streamers, digital, FAST channels – there’s a lot of stuff out there and it’s confusing for viewers,” he says. “Most people just want to watch TV shows, they don’t give a damn where it is as long as they can find it. There are too many outlets, too many places where people can go. That changes the economics of the business.

“These big companies are all firing people because they don’t get as many eyeballs as they used to. They’re also training the viewer to go elsewhere. If you keep showing them the same old, same old, they’re going to go and find entertainment other ways. So original formats are still the way forward.”

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