Synthetic Scabs Are Awful: Netflix, AI, and the M&E Industry's Ongoing Labor Struggle

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Netflix manages a nifty trick with the first episode of the sixth season of Black Mirror, the British anthology series that set the streaming world abuzz in December 2018 with the interactive “choose your own adventure” prestige item Bandersnatch. Titled Joan Is Awful, the episode introduces a fictional Netflix alterego, Streamberry (with virtually identical branding), that deploys digital tracking technology to ransack the worst moments of a woman’s life and dramatise them on-screen on the premium streaming platform in near-real-time, instantly destroying her off-screen life.

Though it appears that Salma Hayek has been cast to portray Joan in the series, Hayek’s digitally animated likeness has been synthetically incorporated into the program. And the kicker is that both actress and subject signed away their rights to object to Streamberry’s big-budget deepfake strategy somewhere deep in the contractual fine print.

In the US, at this writing, writers and actors are striking simultaneously for the first time since 1960 in part to forestall a Streamberry-like AI-fueled future that synthetically exploits them, and top-tier streaming platforms like Netflix stand at the heart of the dispute. The more immediate cause of the impasse is the residual fees structure of expiring labor contracts, which applies a standard for sharing streaming revenues that is a decade out of date, and literally pays out pennies for streaming “replays” of top studios’ most popular programs.

The labor conflict comes at a technological inflection point where AI has made a show like “Joan Is Awful”—compelling original premium programming generated without the active involvement of writers or actors—seem newly viable. Like Streamberry, the apathetic tech monolith that serves as Black Mirror’s faceless new villain, Netflix is as implicated in the writers’ and actors’ guild grievances as any other major production studio. The company’s gobsmacking residual undercompensation of the Orange Is the New Black cast has emerged as Exhibit A for streaming’s reverse Robin Hoodism.

Yet somehow greenlighting “Joan Is Awful” has made Netflix look oddly strike-sympatico, via its winking endorsement of a show that warns against a writer-less, actor-less “profits without people” media and entertainment future from whose realisation they stand to benefit.

Given the global nature of the media industry and the production pipelines that feed the major streaming platforms, the financial and employment issues at stake in the US strike are anything but a regional problem. The US has emerged as the flashpoint because of the expiration of Hollywood’s offending collective bargaining agreements.

At this 24 July writing, no actors' labor stoppages have been announced in Europe, but the prior week brought rallies of the UK’s 47,000-strong Equity entertainment trade union in London and Manchester in “total solidarity” with the US guilds.

The WGA-SAG-AFTRA strike brought major US studio operations and many indie productions to a standstill, though the creator economy chugged on, with many critics decrying studio efforts to recruit popular influencers and online creators to undercut the strike and fill the content void. Meanwhile UK-based production for the HBO shows House of the Dragon and Industry continued apace, because even union British actors cast in the shows are not working under SAG-AFTRA contracts and are subject, under UK law, to being sued by HBO if they withhold their labor. Citing “draconian” UK laws barring sympathy strikes, Equity representatives called UK industrial relations laws “the most restrictive in the Western world.”

It’s no doubt frustrating for British actors caught in this peculiar deunionised zone to have to go on set and virtually cross a picket line located more than 5,000 miles away, knowing that their ongoing work is perpetuating a system that blithely robs them blind. Perhaps even more chilling is that in the absence of strong new protections, the possibility of Black Mirror’s “Joan Is Awful” scenario draws nearer. Every time an actor’s face is captured—24 times per second, 1,440 times per minute—each instance increases the studios’ capacity to roll it into new content without the actors’ participation or consent, making involuntary synthetic scabs of them all.

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