Will the AMPTP Crack?

AMPTP president Carol Lombardini.
AMPTP president Carol Lombardini. Photo: Spencer Weiner/Los Angeles Times via Getty Images
Jonathan Handel
September 11, 2023

Hollywood as we know it is falling to pieces—and with it perhaps goes the AMPTP, the streamers and studios’ official bargaining unit. It’s not just this summer’s two seemingly endless strikes, probably soon to be joined by a SAG-AFTRA vs. video game walkout. Nor is it just the latest back-and-forth between the WGA and AMPTP: while the guild told members on Friday that individual companies are willing to negotiate separately, the alliance, led by Carol Lombardini, responded frostily that it is “unified.” Her response flicks at a requirement—perhaps tucked away in its elusive bylaws—that the organization will act only given unanimous agreement by the AMPTP’s eight so-called Class A members. That empowers the organization to more readily say no than yes.

Of course, this is all just the labor tip of the iceberg. Two months ago, Disney C.E.O. Bob Iger said publicly what should be obvious to everyone: linear networks aren’t core to his company’s business. And now he’s in a dispute with Chris Winfrey’s Charter Communications that will either bring higher carriage fees to Disney, or lead Charter to abandon the cable TV business altogether to focus on its internet service provider operations. This business is getting scary for the traditional studios. 

Streaming is where the action is, but to compete, the legacy studios have to build what Netflix built—a global scripted television channel. But Netflix had no fewer than seven advantages that now elude Disney, Warner Bros. Discovery, Comcast NBCUniversal and Paramount Global. (We’ll look at Sony Pictures separately.)

First, of course, Netflix had first-mover advantage. Second, the legacy companies gave Netflix a decade-long head start. Third, the legacy companies actually helped build Netflix by supplying it with content. Fourth, Netflix enjoyed a built-in direct-to-consumer relationship with audiences thanks to its mail-order DVD rental business. Fifth, the company was able to raise money as a tech company. Sixth, Netflix sought capital at a time when investors were willing to pay for growth and were not demanding profits. And seventh, Netflix was seeking funds at a time when the overall economic climate was more robust.

Apple and Amazon, powerhouses in other businesses, can keep running their content services as they wish, and Sony can afford to do the same with its Sony Pictures unit, which it operates primarily as a supplier (which is why mentioning Sony Pictures in the same breath as the other legacy studios is misleading). Disney is hurting financially but remains highly diversified in theme parks and consumer products. Of course, the vague notion of Apple buying Disney adds an additional wrinkle. And, as everyone has speculated, a Comcast-WBD merger seems likely, and if it requires divestment of NBC’s broadcasting assets—perhaps while retaining the NBC News/MSNBC operations and merging those with CNN—so be it. That leaves Paramount, however diminished, which will exist as long as Shari Redstone wants it to exist.