“I’m certainly not cutting open brains today, I’ll tell you that,” Jonnell Burke (C’18) laughs over our Zoom call in early August, almost one hundred days into the WGA strike. But her cog–neuro degree is, oddly enough, where she first got interested in entertainment. She tells me that one of her professors encouraged her to take classes that were “all the different building blocks of how your brain works,” like philosophy, logic, and anything else that helped Burke become “a more holistic person.” 

Burke “always had this dream of writing,” though, and decided in her senior year to travel to Ireland. “I wanted to get it out of my system before I went on and did something serious,” Burke tells me, still laughing. “And I picked Ireland just because it rains there all the time.” 

That vision of sitting in a misty cafe quickly turned into Burke’s first job in film—working on a local Irish news broadcast. “It was sort of just figuring it out as you go and realizing that you can, that you are capable, actually,” she says. And Burke is capable of a lot—she’s been a late–night writer, a staffer on an Adult Swim show, and has created her own short film with the support of Phil Lord (SpiderMan: Into the SpiderVerse).

But her happy tale of short film production couldn’t last forever. “It felt like the bubble was closing in on itself,” Burke tells me, of her time writing professionally for film and television. And that bubble did indeed burst. At the time of writing, the WGA has been on strike for over one hundred days, longer than their last strike in 2007. SAG–AFTRA is on strike alongside their sister union, marking the first joint strike between actors and writers in about eighty years.

Burke hasn’t let it get her down, though. “One thing the strike has taught me, and taught a lot of us, I think, is: actually, you’re not in it alone,” she says, impassioned. “Actually, there’s been this squeezing that’s been happening at all levels of our industry.”

There certainly has been. Burke takes me through the working writer’s perspective on the ongoing strike and the issues inciting it. There is, predictably, a lot of talk about A.I., but that certainly isn't the only problem discussed. It doesn’t make the problem any less career–threatening, to be sure; the danger of A.I. infringement upon writers’ livelihoods is a relatively ubiquitous stressor. What isn’t getting enough attention, though, argues Burke, is the simple but overwhelming fact that the streaming model has irreparably changed the landscape of creative pay, and that “there’s no accountability” for the hidden streaming numbers behind a model that is changing “in perpetuity” with the only reason for its change being “so that creators don’t get any more money. If you can’t tell me the success of the change of the system, then why are we changing it?” Burke asks. 

Streaming services have been anything but upfront about their demographic metrics, and it’s practically a running joke on the internet at this point that Netflix will cancel their series one season in with reckless abandon.

Beyond model and residual changes, Burke talks about small–order seasons and content voids. “When Succession ended, luckily something like The Bear picked up pretty quickly afterwards,” she explains. “But we were suddenly in a bit of a content hole.”

Burke’s comments echo some popular sentiments that the current streaming service model is simply a repackaging of cable for the Internet age. “Now,” Burke says, hands emphatic and voice impassioned, “it’s like, fill the hole with this! Fill the hole with unscripted stuff!” This is in reference to the current WGA/SAG–AFTRA strike, to be sure, as unscripted content is some of the only entertainment that is allowed to be created under strike rules. It explains the boom of reality TV in the late–aughts during/post–strike era that never really died down, which were the “content hole filler” following the 2007 WGA strike.

Burke says, “We can’t keep changing the model in perpetuity if the only reason we’re changing it is so that creators don’t get any more money. If you can’t tell me the success of the change of the system, then why are we still changing it? Why are we still doing that thing?”

The answer, of course, is profit, an end goal that comes at the expense not only of writers’ livelihoods but also at the expense of quality television. As someone who’s been increasingly frustrated of eight–episode seasons, I have to ask about season length and minirooms. “My favorite show is Buffy the Vampire Slayer,” I tell her, “so I’m a big fan of, you know, long seasons and filler episodes and—”

“Absolutely,” Burke jumps in, grinning. “Filler episodes. Musical episodes! I love—I need them. They’re so important to character development and side plots. There’s so much depth there. You wanna live there. And that’s the time that you get to spend living with these characters and loving these characters, and it’s a different relationship if you see someone for ten hours than if you see them every single week. I love The Nanny because [Fran Drescher] is my nanny, okay?”

And with shorter seasons, the length of employment for everyone involved in the process of show creation has been dramatically cut down. Burke talks about Drescher’s comments on the subject, with Drescher having spoken about how, during the shooting of The Nanny, “everybody was on the gravy train.” “And for good reason!” Burke says. “All the different points of the production that make the production happen, if they can’t pay the bills, you’re crazy. They absolutely should get a piece of the pie and enough of the pie before we even think about what the guy in the suit has to say. Because he can’t say anything until we actually do the work.”

She has to pause to breathe. “I’m only asking for what I’m already due.”

It sometimes feels like an impossible field to work in. “Rooms get smaller and smaller, and the budgets for TV shows get smaller and smaller,” Burke laments. “That means that sometimes a creator who has an amazing idea and wants to bring it to life is given this impossible task of making something incredible with a fraction of the time that it would take to make it years ago. A fraction of the staff. The corners are cut everywhere. And then it goes up on these streaming platforms, and the success of it, or the lack of success of it? We don’t really even know. There’s no accountability.”

But Burke’s far from hopeless. She tells me about how one of the first things to draw her into the industry was internet content created by Black women, such as Issa Rae’s Awkward Black Girl and Quinta Brunson’s time at BuzzFeed. And while the success stories of Insecure and Abbott Elementary are beyond inspiring, Burke wonders “if there is at all an opportunity for [creators supporting their community] to be institutional?”

Part of her work now is focused on creating those systems of support so that other underrepresented voices can be heard, and other paths can be taken towards success. Burke herself got a chance to make a short film, which was her first time spearheading a production. “There’s so few things these days I’m scared of,” Burke tells me, smiling. “There’s so few. I think that I’m more prepared for the challenges that face us today because of this. And I’m glad to be fighting.”