Unpacking the Sausage: Netflix sans chill

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In a masochistic attempt to stay informed about current events, I was hate-listening to NPR on the way to work when I heard a piece discussing the impacts of the Netflix password crackdown. A talking head was insisting the practice of password-sharing was a type of piracy.

My eyes rolled so hard I almost swerved off of 295.

Bre KidmanI’m old enough to remember when Netflix mailed DVDs. It wasn’t piracy to let a friend borrow a DVD I’d taken out on my subscription before I returned it. It might have skirted the line of theft to claim the first season of Dinosaurs was lost in the mail when my ex had actually just kept the discs post-breakup, but the statute of limitations has long since passed so…good luck locking me up on that one.

The point is that the studios seem to have conveniently forgotten the difference between “not getting revenue you might possibly stand to gain” and “forcibly extracting revenue from users.” While Netflix is crying piracy over subscribers sharing a service they rightfully paid for with people they choose, they (and other studios) are simultaneously demanding the right to use the work of actual human beings in perpetuity for fractions of pennies on the dollar. Hence the dual WGA and SAG-AFTRA strikes that are about to leave us in a bottomless pit of reality TV trash this winter.

Making it in Hollywood is a longshot dream, but even people who do “make it” aren’t exactly living the Lifestyles of the Rich and Famous these days. Roughly 87 percent of SAG-AFTRA members earn less than $26,000 per year from acting, according to figures recently cited by members. The median pay for actors nationwide is just under $18 an hour. That’s less than the manager at your local McDonald’s.

The outlook for writers is arguably even bleaker. Under current contracts, WGA writers make $13,500 when a show airs on a network, but just $700 when it’s listed on a streaming service, according to recent reports. The impact of streaming on residual payments factors into both strikes, with well-known actors taking to social media to post pictures of quarterly residual checks for less than a dollar.

Of course, that presumes the actors get paid at all. Current negotiations have studios demanding the right to scan actors digitally for a flat one-day fee, allowing AI copies of actors to appear in whatever way the owners of the scans deem fit without further compensation—or consent.

Which leads me to ask: how have the people developing AI decided on the absolute worst things to automate? Who’s setting the priorities here? So many kids dream of growing up to be actors and writers. Few will get there—whether because of a lack of talent or opportunity. So, why on earth are those the jobs the tech sector has decided to make more scarce? Why not automate some of the farmworker jobs for which Janet Mills keeps vetoing attempts to set minimum wage and labor protections instead? Why not save $40.8 million and automate Netflix CEO Reed Hastings?

The answer usually comes back to profit. I imagine it’s cheap to train robots to do things humans do for love—the things we put out into the internet for free, the things we release into the world because we want to be seen and understood and to connect with others. It’s probably much harder to teach a robot to do all those “nobody wants to work anymore” jobs. 

It’s a better explanation than “evil forces are purposefully using technology to make humans more miserable,” but the news these days is enough like a comic book I’m not ruling anything out.

The studios’ attempts to cash in on the eradication of the great Hollywood dream do seem somewhat counterproductive, though. For all the fuss about password sharing, Netflix reported an increase in subscribers last quarter, but a drop in revenue. I can’t help wondering what a winter without any new scripted content to air will do to their bottom line, but I’m willing to bet a lot fewer people will be begging for a friend’s password to watch another season of Is It Cake—much less paying for their own.

Bre Kidman is an artist, activist, and attorney (in that order), the first openly non-binary person in history to run for the U.S. Senate, and the co-executive director of MaineTransNet. They would be delighted to hear your thoughts on the political industrial complex at [email protected].

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