Inside TV Writers’ Fight to Keep Their Shows From Disappearing
Brigitte Muñoz-Liebowitz has been working in television writing and production for over 12 years. But the script for the HBO Max original series Gordita Chronicles was the first time she’d ever seen a TV series that mirrored her own family’s story.
“My mother came to the US from Colombia in 1962,” Muñoz-Liebowitz tells Rolling Stone. “Growing up as a brown person in a predominantly white neighborhood, it made the fact that we were newer to this country culturally much more significant. So reading all the narratives in Gordita Chronicles, I felt like I was reading about my own family.”
Muñoz-Liebowitz signed on to executive produce the show, a comedy about a chubby Dominican girl dealing with her life, family, and the 1980s. And in its first season, the quirky series was well received by critics and viewers — making it a shock to Muñoz-Liebowitz and the entire crew when Gordita was abruptly canceled and removed from HBO Max.
“Not only was it disappointing when we heard about the cancellation, it was a shock because we were working to start shooting [Season 2] a few weeks later,” she says. “It felt very unjust. It didn’t matter that our show was beloved, it didn’t matter that we had good audience numbers. It didn’t matter that we were writing about content that was important for underrepresented communities. None of that mattered.”
For TV writers, getting canceled is just another part of the gig. HBO Max isn’t the first streaming service to cancel shows. Disney+, Hulu, Paramount +, Peacock, and other major platforms have all responded to ongoing inflation and a dwindling subscriber base by slashing series after their first seasons and canceling underperforming projects. But when entertainment conglomerate Warner Bros. Discovery, the parent company of Discovery + and HBO Max, needed a way to increase cash flow and cut down on debts, shows weren’t just canceled — full projects were erased and treated as tax write-offs.
Since 2022, at least 35 projects have been canceled and removed from streaming service HBO Max. This includes shows that had already been given a renewal and some that were close to or completely done filming. Combined with stagnant wages, and what writers describe to Rolling Stone as an attempt from streaming companies to save pennies on residuals, the tensions in the industry have all led to ongoing contract negotiations with the Writers Guild of America. The talks, which began on March 20, could end with a new contract or the first major TV writers’ strike since 2007. But several writers tell Rolling Stone having their shows end doesn’t feel like just an HBO Max problem. Instead, a new fear has emerged, that HBO Max has set a dangerous precedent for streaming services — one that could see some TV shows disappear forever.
In the era of broadcast cable, television shows that were well-received but weren’t top earners were often canceled. A show that didn’t perform well was taking up a spot on the broadcast, one that a better show could use to make top executives more money. A writer, who was paid an initial contract for writing on a show, would leave to find another job. But there was a silver lining: residuals. If a show was replayed, syndicated, or sold to an overseas audience, the writer would receive a residual in the form of a mailed check — extra income that could continue throughout their career.
Tom Nunan, a faculty member at the UCLA School of Theater, Film, and Television, tells Rolling Stone that residuals became a major part of TV payment when premium cable became an option.
“We saw the boom of residuals make a difference in the lives of writers when basic cable and premium cable became an option for content repeating in the late Seventies and early Eighties,” Nunan says. “And it exploded into the late Eighties and Nineties when even more of those shows weren’t just going on to secondary platforms or syndication, but they were also selling abroad to various international platforms.”
But in the current streaming era, residuals exist — they’re just very, very small. Writers who work on streaming shows can often make larger upfront wages, but their residuals are based on viewership at the time of premiere and decrease substantially as a show ages. Streaming conglomerates don’t make money by views, they make money by subscribers. This incentivizes streamers to maintain tentpole shows that encourage people to sign up, but keeping up with big names and even bigger production costs can often come at the expense of smaller projects — even those with steady viewerships. And with a wave of cancellations coming as streamers try to tighten their belts, writers, including those in the Writers Guild of America, believe that cancellations have become a de facto way to avoid paying the already scarce residuals.
“The industry has changed. Companies have done everything they can to push writers’ pay down as little as possible,” WGA Chief Negotiator Ellen Stutzman tells Rolling Stone. “It is a crisis point for writers in terms of the viability and sustainability of writing as a career. The goal is to get a contract for our members that addresses their concerns and puts money back in writers’ pockets and fairly compensates them for the value that they create for this industry.”
Owen Dennis is the creator of Infinity Train, a critically acclaimed animated series on HBO Max praised for its emotional depth and intricate storylines. But when it was removed from the streamer before its team could finish its fifth season, it didn’t just leave Dennis feeling betrayed — it left him nervous for his industry. He tells Rolling Stone that with such internal turmoil in streaming services, some television writers are starting to feel like they can’t trust their work is safe, even after they’re done filming. He points to projects like Batgirl, Scoob!, and Westworld’s final season as examples of projects that were already shot and treated as tax write-offs for the company.
“They’re never gonna see the light of day. It’s really scary, “Dennis says. “‘We could just get rid of it forever and no one will ever see it’ has never really been part of the deal. Lately, it’s become a lot more common. So it’s taking a lot of people in the industry by surprise.”
Muñoz-Liebowitz echoes his concerns. She also wrote on Netflix’s One Day At A Time, which was canceled and finally saved by Pop TV, following a massive fan campaign. She tells Rolling Stone that fan-favorite shows are getting shopped around, but without an established plan in place to preserve or archive copies of streaming originals, there’s a chance that smaller works might disappear entirely.
“The risk of cancellation is something we all accept in this line of work,” Muñoz-Liebowitz says. “It’s the nature of the business. But we’re in a weird sort of liminal space, a transition of technologies, where we don’t have [DVDs] to fall back on. This is our history, and to make them unavailable is erasing that narrative. I know media preservation is probably not very high on their list of things that are important to execs, unless it’s making them money, but as an artist, there is a level of ethics that I feel like I’ve committed to. And I wish the business section of this industry had as well.”
Many of the canceled HBO Max shows have been used as bargaining chips or negotiated into secondary deals with sites like Tubi. The free services use ad programs to pay for their catalogs of shows, which they license from conglomerates like Warner Bros. Discovery. Others, like fan favorite Minx, which was canceled and removed while crew were finishing filming its second season, have found new homes on other streamers like Starz. But Julia Pott, the creator of the HBO Max animated series Summer Camp Island, adds that when cancellations hit animated series, it makes it harder for animators to show future employers their work. According to Pott, animators are often not given access to old files that include storyboards or drawings. More established animators can point to other work, but for people newer to the industry, the lack of examples of their work could determine whether or not they ever get another job.
Summer Camp Island is a whimsical series about two anthropomorphic best friends, Oscar and Hedgehog, who explore their magical summer camp. The show was two days away from premiering its sixth and final season when it was pulled from the HBO Max lineup entirely. The uncertainty was eventually resolved, as Cartoon Network announced a plan to premiere the season on its cable channel. But Pott says the experience was both disheartening and an example of how cancellations could price younger and diverse animators and tv writers out of the industry.
“We found out via a Deadline article, so that was its own form of trauma,” Pott says. “It’s incredibly demoralizing. I have the luxury of having had a show on Cartoon Network with my name on it. But there are artists that can’t do that. And we’re not given access to any of those files. So we’ve come away with none of our work. You trust that someone will respect your art enough to follow through with it and put it on television.”
While Warner Bros. Discovery is the most recent media giant to raise alarms in the writing community, they didn’t create the problem — and they aren’t the only ones having issues. Streaming giants like Netflix, Paramount+, and Disney have been forced to reckon with a burst in the streaming bubble, as more streaming services than ever mean people aren’t subscribing to new platforms at the same rate. But even when some of the shows are saved, each of the writers who spoke to Rolling Stone expressed concern about what television based solely on numbers would look like.
For Sam Boyd, the creator of HBO Max’s anthology series Love Life, the reckoning of the streaming bubble is bittersweet. He tells Rolling Stone the show’s cancellation and removal were brutal, but he recognizes that Love Life was only able to exist because it was bought by a streaming service when it had the ability to throw money at more original deas. But Boyd does note that as more decisions become about finances, consumers will see a major change in the options they have to watch.
“To me, I feel really lucky that I got to make the show and I get to keep working,” Boyd says. “The thing that is sad to me about the new landscape is that buyers are quadrupling down on the intellectual property thing. So it’s going to be five Dexter spin-offs and whatever they’re announcing. And that it’s going to be harder and harder for someone to say, ‘I had an idea for a TV show and this actor wants to do it, so let’s go.’ That was what we got really lucky with Love Life. We got to make a show that came from my heart and the hearts of my collaborators.”
Muñoz-Liebowitz agrees that the future of television creation is changing. But she says she can’t get behind a television industry that only focuses on funds to the detriment of the lives and jobs behind each show. She points to the ease at which prestige dramas, which often feature a majority white cast and white storylines, can stay on the air, while more diverse shows often end up on the chopping block.
“It’s wild to have to fight so hard to keep your content on the air,” Muñoz-Liebowitz says. “And a big part of it is the demographics of the people making choices on the business side. If we don’t have executive talent who see themselves in the material, they’re not going to care enough to fight for something because they don’t connect to it. And again, this is a piece of a diversity problem that we have in Hollywood right now.”
Boyd finds solace in the fact that cancellations often have little to do with a show’s quality. He highlights a long list of television shows (Arrested Development, Freak and Geeks) that were only critically appreciated for their genius years after their cancellation — a hope that can only endure if creators and companies are more proactive about preserving old shows.
“The stuff that hits in the moment isn’t always the stuff that really endures,” Boyd says. “A lot of the shows that I love were shows that were only on for a season or two. Not everybody knew about them but they were mine. And to think that maybe Love Life could be that for someone is nice. The wider cultural shift is horrible. But I’m hoping more of the shows will pop back up and be available to people.”
“I can only write about what I know. And what I know is about being a half-Latina, half-Jewish woman in the world,” Muñoz-Liebowitz says. “I’m absolutely determined to keep telling these and other stories that have been marginalized as well. I’m not going to let someone tell me that my stories can’t exist.”
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