AI won’t kill original TV shows and movies, streaming companies will

A protestor at the WGA strike of 2023 holds a sign saying 'AI has no soul'
(Image credit: Getty)

Arguably the biggest shakeup in the film and TV industries since the rise of Netflix and streaming services is unfolding. The emergence of natural language processing models such as ChatGPT has ignited a fierce debate over AI’s use in content creation, and battle lines are being drawn.  

Perhaps the largest single-minded response has been from 20,000 odd Hollywood film and TV writers. On May 2nd, the Writers' Guild of America (WGA) called a strike after negotiations with the Alliance of Motion Picture and Television Producers (AMPTP), who represent the studios and networks, ended in a stalemate. 

While the WGA is calling for higher wages and better healthcare, AI is also fast becoming a major sticking point, with Hollywood writers asking for increased regulation around the use of the emerging technology. 

One of the main points of contention around using AI for content creation is the ethical challenges that surround it, including plagiarism, intellectual property, misuse, bias and misinformation. And then of course there’s the creative element of the debate, with many arguing it will never be able to replace the human touch. 

So, what does this all mean for our favorite films and TV shows?

How might the writers’ strike play out?  

Since the Hollywood writers’ strike began, some of the best TV shows and best movies have been stalled, including (for example) Apple TV Plus’ best show Severance. While some shows have managed to continue filming amid the bitter revolt, others have had to pause production – we’ve compiled a list of every other show and film affected by the writers' strike.  

However, this isn’t the first time that writers have taken strike action in Hollywood. It’s been 15 years since the last strike occurred – a WGA strike loomed in 2017 but a deal was reached in the 11th hour, which averted any industrial action.      

The last WGA strike lasted 100 days (between November 5 2007 and February 12 2008), with writers fighting over better royalty pay from DVD sales and union protection. It impacted many popular shows at the time, from cutting episodes in shows like Lost to changing character plots in Breaking Bad. 

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During the strike action in 2007 and 2008, reality TV exploded as a way to substitute the lack of content. Without the need for Writers' Guild members, talk shows and game shows were an easy and cheap way to plug the gaps. 

The rise in production of non-scripted TV helped make reality TV shows an instant hit. Keeping up with the Kardashians launched just a few weeks before the strike began, for example. The Apprentice, on the other hand, experienced a significant ratings decline in 2007 that was reversed thanks to NBC revamping the show to be The Celebrity Apprentice a year later.  

Is the golden era of streaming over?     

While it’s still very early days of the Hollywood writers’ strike of 2023, there are some broader changes taking place in the entertainment industry that could provide clues as to how this might all come to a head.       

To get a sense of the scale of these changes, we’ll need to go back to the early days of 2020 when the pandemic was beginning to take hold. Tech companies like Netflix, Apple and Amazon had experienced a decade of unrelenting growth and were about to see their bottom lines begin to expand even faster. The pandemic was a golden age for streaming platforms, with many of us enjoying tons of (what seemed to be endless) ad-free content as companies poured outsized profits into expanding their original content libraries.      

The surge in popularity (and crucially the lucrativeness) of streaming platforms in that era prompted many networks and studios to launch services of their own to rival the industry stalwarts like Netflix, Apple, Amazon and Disney. Warner Bros. unveiled HBO Max and NBCUniversal debuted Peacock in 2020. 

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Fast forward to 2023 and that period of cheap content has come to an end in the face of a global slowdown. The cost pressures that have mounted amid rising interest rates and inflation have led many tech companies to cut costs by – for example – announcing layoffs and increasing their prices, and this is only the beginning. Another way that streaming platforms are looking to gain more revenue is by expanding their distribution deals. Just this week, Amazon launched a new distribution arm, which means that big Prime Video shows and movies could soon be on other streamers.        

As more and more platforms begin to share content, it's possible that we might see acquisitions or subscription bundles in the streaming business to combine different streaming services together. After all, besides Netflix, many streamers are unprofitable and have struggled to keep up. However, the idea that an even smaller number of key players will own the industry could be worrying, especially amid the WGA strike.

How could AI change the future of streaming?

There are many different ways that AI is already being used in the entertainment industry, such as recommendation algorithms, post-production video encoding and even script analysis.

While we’re still a long way off seeing sci-fi depictions of AI as seen in films like Metropolis and 2001: A Space Odyssey, the pace of its advancements in machine learning is nothing short of breathtaking. AI generated scripts were already being toyed with in 2016 for example – check out the trailer below for a movie that was entered into the Sci-Fi London film festival. 

The script isn’t great and has a long way to go, but when comparing this to today’s versions of language models like ChatGPT, it is scary how quick the rate of advancement is occurring. CGI is quickly becoming an area that is showcasing AI’s potential. Indeed, AI is already giving YouTubers the tools to make high-quality animations at a fraction of the time and cost of blockbuster studios.  

The potential of it to tackle large scale projects is an exciting thought. It could create more immersive virtual reality experiences by designing more realistic environments and NPCs with detailed back stories. AI could also help make TV shows and movies much more personalized to the viewer. These personalization capabilities could even extend to interactive storytelling formats – think Bandersnatch but a version where no ending is the same.

AI may also get to a stage where it can translate scripts into multiple languages in real-time. In fact, the use of AI in translation today is a good example of how humans can use technology as a tool. When Google Translate launched in 2006, many translators felt that their jobs were over. But in fact, the nuances of translation is not something that has been easily taken over by robots in the years since.  

What does the future of entertainment look like?

When it comes to making sure that script writers are paid fair wages, I hold the streaming services and production companies accountable. If the likes of Apple TV Plus, Netflix, Amazon Prime and Disney Plus don’t want to shell out for original content and instead rely on a computer model then we’ll likely see soulless productions become the norm in the future.

This won't be a failure of AI, it'll be a failure of businesses determined to use a tool that simply isn't up to the task, just to save a buck. (It's not like writers are a huge drain on the cost of modern $100+ million productions.)

The film and TV industries could be a harbinger of what’s to come for everyone. Fears of stifled creativity and the ethical challenges that AI brings are just the beginning. However, it’s important to recognize – for the moment at least – there are still some major limitations of AI and its capabilities. Sure, it will impact the jobs of many people (including the one that’s behind this keyboard), but there’s no doubt that there are some real exciting possibilities from it too.

But it's a tool to be used by skilled humans, not to replace them. Its ability to allow script writers more time to focus on larger projects unlocks a lot of potential, for example. If its use brings down the quality of shows and movies on the best streaming services, that will be because it's been misused; not because it's the villain of the story.

Amelia Schwanke
Senior Editor UK, Home Entertainment

Amelia became the Senior Editor for Home Entertainment at TechRadar in the UK in April 2023. With a background of more than eight years in tech and finance publishing, she's now leading our coverage to bring you a fresh perspective on everything to do with TV and audio. When she's not tinkering with the latest gadgets and gizmos in the ever-evolving world of home entertainment, you’ll find her watching movies, taking pictures and travelling.