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Could AI take over your favourite TV programme?

Soap operas are well-oiled machines even without the presence of machine learning, but now fears abound that generative AI tools could replace human screenwriters

Can screenwriters be replaced by AI? I’m tempted, for the purposes of freeing up my time for what AI enthusiasts would call “more value-added work” just to type the word “no”, then copy and paste it repeatedly for the remainder of my allotted column space, perhaps with a Logan Roy-style “f**k off” as a finishing flourish.

But that answer might be wrong.

After all, an award-winning director told a British government committee in February that entire television series could be made by generative AI “within three to five years” from now, while screenwriters’ guilds worldwide are concerned enough about AI to outline their common position on the ethics of its use.

It seems fair to explore the question. Is this still a gig for humans? We already know that, for much of the time, it’s a gig for humans with another source of income. Will the economics of the entertainment business, notorious for taking a “work, what work?” approach to the labour of writers, go the whole way and reframe screenwriting as a task for an unpaid AI tool?

It feels surreal to suggest it and yet by definition, it’s not unthinkable. People are thinking it. Amid baffling tech industry excitement about new or imminent ways to outsource thought — which is what is happening here — screenwriters are one of many creative groups to find themselves on the front line of a battle they would prefer not to have to fight.

In my own more prosaic job, I’ll be honest, the Fear of Being Replaced is frequently drowned out by the Hope of Being Replaced. Come, friendly robots, etc. But it seems bizarre to me that essentially the same people who are the source of everything that has ever brought me joy — musicians, actors, artists, writers of all kinds — are now standing in the path of an AI wrecking ball.

It was James Hawes, who counts acclaimed Apple TV+ series Slow Horses and the Anthony Hopkins film One Life among his recent directing credits, who advised a Westminster committee inquiry that both the scripts and the actual footage of a television series could be fully AI-generated as early as 2027. He wasn’t advocating for this outcome.

Three to five years was his “best guess” for how long it will take for an AI series to arrive, with this estimate deriving from his knowledge of tech such as OpenAI’s text-to-video tool Sora, a poll of visual effects (VFX) experts and his consultations with the legal teams at US actor and writer representative bodies Sag-Aftra and the WGA, both of which made AI a key issue in protracted contract negotiations with Hollywood producers last year.

Even if it turns out the principle of human authorship elicits more respect elsewhere, there is bound to be a spillover effect

Citing the BBC’s daytime soap Doctors, Hawes explained that an AI tool could be asked to write and generate a scene in which an A&E doctor flirts with a colleague while a patient is dying on the table. The result “may not be as polished” as human efforts, but “that is how close we’re getting”. He found it “hard to believe, for all the creatives involved”.

The ensuing headlines went big on the soap angle, which made sense on one level, and not just because some soaps could do with an AI tool purely to keep track of all the serial killers operating in their area.

Soap operas are volume businesses that hinge on unbeatable first-take production efficiency. They are well-oiled machines even without the actual presence of machine learning.

After years of falling audience ratings, however, the UK soaps do not carry the same weight with TV bosses that they once did. Doctors, for instance, was axed by the BBC last October, with the final episodes due to air this December. Channel 4′s Hollyoaks has been cut from five episodes a week to three from September. All eyes are on EastEnders, but not in a good way.

Here, transmission of Fair City, the only in-house RTÉ drama production, has been reduced from four to three episodes a week as part of the broadcaster’s string of content cutbacks in 2024. Four episodes are still produced each week, but the move allows for a two-month production break in the summer, saving RTÉ money.

This is the tough broadcast environment in which predictions of AI soap operas are being thrown about. But, of course, those predictions have been inspired first and foremost by the breakneck speed of technological advances. In this respect, it feels naive to conclude that the tentacles of AI scriptwriting — or AI story-lining or AI script editing — will stretch only as far as soaps.

Even if it turns out the principle of human authorship elicits more respect elsewhere, there is bound to be a spillover effect. Soap operas, as well as being enjoyed in their own right, serve as training grounds for the wider audiovisual industry. The first “AI soap” devised by some bright spark with an OpenAI licence risks setting in motion a process of deskilling that is never reversed.

No wonder the International Affiliation of Writers Guilds — chaired by Writers Guild of Ireland chairwoman Jennifer Davidson — and the Federation of European Screenwriters have passed a joint resolution on establishing “an ethical framework” for the use of AI in scriptwriting.

This includes a call for “obligatory transparency and accountability” on the use of AI-generated material, a call for consent and fair remuneration when writers’ intellectual property is used to train large language models or other forms of AI, and an affirmation that AI should not be used to replace writers.

Writing, it seems almost too simplistic to say, takes longer than the time required to consume it. That is the thrill of it, and the cost. Now here comes Big Tech to take the genie out of the bottle and leave nothing but emptiness inside — there have been Christmas days in Albert Square less miserable.

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