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The Life and Death of Hollywood

Film and television writers face an existential threat.

By the end of the Fifties, when 86 percent of Americans owned a television, writers had piecemeal established limited residual payments but wanted more. The studios—which now made both films and television—claimed that the fast-changing business was too uncertain to increase writers’ cuts, an assertion that, according to the film and media historian Miranda Banks, later executives would repeat with each major technological innovation in distribution, from cable to VHS tapes to DVDs, and finally to streaming. In 1960, the union, now the Writers Guild of America, went on strike, soon followed by the Screen Actors Guild. Both won expanded residuals, increased minimums, pensions, and health benefits. Most writers were now freelancers, but they had established a basis for long and stable careers.

Over the next two decades, the writing profession was further bolstered by a federal government that enforced and expanded antitrust law. In 1970, the Federal Communications Commission instituted the Financial Interest and Syndication Rules—or Fin-Syn—which barred networks from holding ownership stakes in the prime-time and syndicated programs that they aired, effectively prohibiting film studios from owning TV networks and vice versa, and generally increasing competition. In the mid-Seventies, full-time TV staffers were paid a minimum of roughly $30,000 a year, almost twice the median family income in 1976. For high-budget feature-film screenplays, writers made a baseline of about $17,000, or around $95,000 in today’s money.

It wasn’t until the early Eighties, when the Reagan Revolution hit Hollywood, that the guardrails began to fall. In 1983, the Department of Justice allowed HBO, Columbia Pictures, and CBS to merge to form TriStar Pictures, combining cable, film, and broadcast-network interests in direct violation of antitrust law. Executives at other entertainment companies took note and moved to create their own conglomerates. In 1985, the DOJ went a step further, issuing a memo, later discovered by the historian Jennifer Holt, stating that it would no longer enforce the Paramount Decrees, and the studios scooped up theater chains once again. When the Clinton Administration came to power, it carried on what its Republican predecessors had begun. In 1993, the FCC began to formally repeal the Fin-Syn rules, and in 1996, Clinton signed the Telecommunications Act, which removed restrictions on the cross-ownership of broadcast networks and cable providers. In 1994, in an unprecedented deal, cable giant Viacom merged with retailer Blockbuster Video, and took over Paramount Pictures. In 1996, Disney merged with Capital Cities/ABC to become the largest entertainment conglomerate in the world. The next year, Time Warner—already the product of two massive corporations, and previously the biggest conglomerate—joined with Turner Broadcasting System and reclaimed the crown. The gates had been opened, and the new monopolization was only just beginning.