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Netflix is a Wendigo

Culture Editor Connor Williams discusses today’s media landscape as the modern-day manifestation of the wendigo, shedding light on its eerie parallels with the current Hollywood writers strikes and binge-watching.

The wendigo is a beast that survives through the oral history of the Northern Native American tribes. Described in various ways across the USA, it is a monster or spirit that curses humans to become insatiable cannibals, never free from hunger. While its origins are not directly traceable, and its lore is unaligned, it is commonly thought that the wendigo will do everything in its power to be fed. To this day the legend remains to serve as a cautionary tale against the plights of greed and addiction. While we may no longer view this beast as a reason to stay out of the woods, perhaps it is a reason to stay away from our screens. 

As the writers of Hollywood surpass 100 days of union action, it’s worth recalling how the strikes have paused the release of many favourited shows. Netflix and other streaming sites over the past decade have made viewing more accessible than ever before, mobile streaming letting us binge TV and film like whales eating krill. Whether you are waiting for a bus or even sitting on the loo, we are constantly absorbing media.

This capacity for content has driven us to an addiction with an unquenchable thirst. Social media and sites like Netflix seem infinite – a dangerous illusion – compelling us to feel entitled to brand-new content all of the time. This is the curse of the wendigo, and the root of the Hollywood writers strikes. 

Appetite kills residuals

As we engulf media content, streaming services take down older shows that are no longer being watched, therefore writers who used residuals (compensation for reused work) as a primary source of income are now being paid as little as $8 for shows that they have written. When TV was only available on TV, writers for shows like ‘Friends’ or ‘Fresh Prince of Bel Air’ made their wages on repeats. Due to the market saturation, this is simply not possible anymore. According to the WGA (Writers Guild of America) the average pay of a writer has declined by 23% (including inflation) over the past decade as a result of this issue. This cultural shift towards streaming services has allowed writers to undergo a significant pay cut.  

Hunger driving fewer seasons

Ironically, the uptake in streaming service usage has caused TV shows to have fewer seasons. With the constant stream of new content continuously piquing our interest, TV producers must work harder to ensure consistent views. This means that a high-profile cast and advanced postproduction have become paramount in order for a project stand out. However, to caveat these costs, TV shows have become shorter. The ‘ouroboros’ that is the current film industry is both shrinking and growing. We no longer allow ourselves to get to know characters like we used to, and we engage in plot less than ever before. This has forced screenwriting to become part of a gig economy as opposed to a job that people could hold down year-round.

Does technology mean we’re toast?

The curse of the streaming wendigo affects writers as we emerge into a world of creative content without creators. As we scavenge for more TV, the rate at which we demand more shows has increased. In order to combat this, it is likely streaming services may turn to AI to write scripts. This removes the writer from the world of screenwriting. Currently, the WGA is trying to strike a deal with the AMPTP (Alliance of Motion Picture and Television Producers) to ensure that human screenwriters are incorporated into upcoming projects. 

The binge-watching problem
As Netflix, Prime Video, Disney+, and every other streaming site generate mountains of content for us to watch, the screenwriters will not be the only ones grappling with the fallout of this problem; we, the audience, are poised to bear the brunt of these adverse effects as well. In 2017, 90% of millennials and 87% of Gen Z stated they had binge-watched TV, and while the primary worry for those interested in the writers’ strikes is that we do not know where our next media meal is coming from. There is a broader issue at stake. Links to depression, anxiety, sleeping problems and addictive behaviours have all been highlighted as potential issues related to binge-watching. Binge-watching significantly increased over the course of the COVID-19 pandemic and has left a lasting impact on both mental health and the TV industry simultaneously. 

As we succumb to the spell of an episode’s cliffhanger and convince ourselves that one more episode won’t hurt, the outside world becomes harmfully immaterial. Binge-watching forces us to be less productive in both our work and social lives by distracting us from the world beyond our screens. Racing through streaming sites has also led to ‘screen stacking’, a common activity among students, whereby a TV show will play in the background while we attempt to do our work on another screen. This forces divided attention and results in lower-quality work. The impact of binge-watching is significant, with the spell left unbroken, it leads to sedated brains and idle-handed lifestyles.

The End

Must we now rebut against the major streaming platforms so that writers can keep their jobs and so that we may avoid the dangers of binge-watching? No. It is clear that Netflix despite the strikes is not going to disappear anytime soon. As well as this, many believe that the entertainment industry is built up of enough freelancers to reach an even keel out of demand. While others believe that the WGA will eventually strike a fairer deal with the AMPTP (despite no current end in sight).

The legend of the wendigo may seem like an ancient tale – a myth that warrants a superficial response. However, a monster that forces humans into greed, entitlement and isolation is a beast too significant to ignore. As mass consumerism and streaming services take the place of things that go bump in the night, we will do well to remember the lessons of the monsters that came before them. Netflix is a wendigo – do not let it binge-eat you.

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