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In Hollywood Contract Talks, the Push for Viewership Data May Become a Flash Point

The Writers Guild of America and the Alliance of Motion Picture and Television Producers have settled on March 20 to begin negotiations on a new master TV and film contract. The clock is already ticking and strike fears are growing. The WGA’s current contract expires May 1.

The issues that the scribe tribe will place on the charcoal-gray table in the enormous conference room at the AMPTP’s Sherman Oaks headquarters have come into sharp focus in recent months. Just about everybody agrees that the compensation standards for writers — as well as actors and directors, whose unions will also hold contract talks this year — have been outmoded by the streaming revolution. The hard part will be reaching a compromise on how to adapt them.

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Hollywood labor veterans say one of the big flash points in the negotiations could be union demands for much greater transparency from streaming platforms on viewership data. It’s speculated that the WGA, Directors Guild of America and SAG-AFTRA will try to use their leverage to force the largest streamers to disclose significantly more data to content providers. For many creatives, this is a business imperative that needs to be baked into union contracts.

Before the rise of Netflix, there was no precedent in the modern era for entertainment platforms that had the ability to keep TV ratings, ticket sales or box office grosses largely confidential. That changed with the “walled garden” construct of streaming. The platforms have been built with proprietary technology that carves out a digital moat that keeps the industry’s traditional arbiters of performance — such as Nielsen — from tracking viewership and overall usage levels.

This isn’t just about bragging rights. Hollywood unions and their members want to get their hands on a lot more data because those metrics have been a vital ingredient of dealmaking. Industry stars get paid — and then some — for success. A showrunner with the No. 1 series on a network for two seasons commands a pay hike to return for a third season. That’s been the law of gravity in showbiz for decades. But in the current climate, there’s little transparency, especially over the long term, for any given title.

The information void is particularly frustrating to the creative community because in the digital era, platforms have the incredible ability to track viewership stats right down to individual users. “How is it OK that [streamers] have never known more about who’s watching what — and we don’t get anything,” a union veteran grumbles.

But the unions are expected to take a big swing at turning the trickle of data that now exists into a gusher. Industry observers note that this in turn could be a major sore point within the AMPTP, driving a wedge between the old-guard studio owners (Warner Bros. Discovery, Comcast, Paramount Global, Sony Pictures Entertainment) and new-model streamers (Netflix, Amazon, Apple) that have steadfastly refused to release much data. (In fairness, Netflix since late 2021 has offered a limited weekly snapshot of minutes viewed for top 10 titles in various categories.)

The biz is already worried that tension between those two camps may complicate the bargaining process, because the mega streamers are seen as being better equipped to weather a long work stoppage.

Will Hollywood creatives be willing to strike for the right to know how many people watched the latest season of “Bridgerton” or “Ted Lasso”? If emotions run high on both sides of the table over demands for transparency, the fight could bring new meaning to the notion of crunching the numbers.

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