Last night the Writers Guild of America took one step closer to the picket lines, voting overwhelmingly in favor of striking if a contract agreement cannot be reached with the Alliance of Motion Picture and Television Producers by May 1st. The two parties—that respectively represent TV/film writers and over 350 studios, networks, and production companies—are to go back into negotiations today. And as they hash out the details that will hopefully prevent the first WGA strike in a decade, we’re going to look at the conflict and what it could mean for your favorite shows.
The Problem Is Peak TV
“Peak TV” essentially means there’s more shows on television channels (called legacy TV) and streaming services like Netflix, Hulu, and Amazon Prime than ever before. According to Esquire, a record-breaking 455 aired last year. And this might seem like good news for writers, plenty of work! However, the boom of so many shows has also meant far shorter seasons. Twenty episodes plus used to be pretty standard. But more and more American series are following the UK model, meaning series can be as short 13 or even ten episodes. So writers are potentially making half of what they would a few years back.
Making matters worse, despite shorter episode demands, the time invested in their writing has boomed, meaning writers could be asked to spend two to three weeks on an episode, or commit half a year to a series. And as WGA contract rates by episode—not by production window—this has meant less money for writers. So, the WGA is looking to change this pay structure. If they mirror other facets of production, writers would be compensated for their time, not their output. (You can read more about the specifics at the WGA’s website.)
The other contract issue that currently hurts TV writers is one of exclusivity. Namely, if you’re writing for one show, you’re contractually banned from working on any others. Which means writers have their hands tied when it comes to making up for lost wages on less episodes. And that means they are paying less into their guild, which means less money is going into the group’s healthcare coverage and retirement fund. It’s trickle down devastation. So, the WGA is putting their foot down, pointing out that without writers the Hollywood sausage can’t get made. And it’s time they are compensated for the crucial role they play in our favorite movies and TV shows.
Screenwriter C. Robert Cargill (Sinister, Doctor Strange) shared an informative thread on some of these points. Below are the most relevant:
Our health fund is a few sick family members away from potential wipeout. When asked for increased contributions, the studios offered CUTS.— C. Robert Cargill (@Massawyrm) April 20, 2017
And that's what we're fighting for. Protecting our health fund and making sure writers room staff are paid decently for their work.— C. Robert Cargill (@Massawyrm) April 20, 2017
What This Would Mean For Your Favorite Shows
If a contract is not settled by May 1st, writers will go on strike May 2nd. And the most immediate impact will be an absolute halt on late night talk shows, as their writers convene to create content on the daily. That means The Daily Show, The Late Show With Stephen Colbert, Jimmy Kimmel Live! and The Late Late Show with James Corden will be off the air immediately, and could stay off until a contract can be reached.
Scripted narrative television won’t feel the impact right away. Summer programming like Game of Thrones, Twin Peaks, and Orange Is The New Black is already in the can. But Fall series that were looking to roll into production May through July (Jessica Jones, Star Trek Discovery, American Horror Story, The Walking Dead) could hit major hold ups. If producers follow the game book of the 2007 strike, their series could see debut delays or have episode orders cut short to keep to the release schedule as much as possible. That’s what happened to series like Heroes, 30 Rock and Breaking Bad following the last strike. Meanwhile, other shows were delayed so long from returning that their audiences forgot them. This was what led to the untimely demise of the quirky crime comedy Pushing Daisies.
What It Could Mean For Movies
Bad things. But not right away. When screenwriters threatened to strike in 2007, Hollywood producers pushed up deadlines to be sure the schedule of big budget blockbusters wouldn’t be negatively impacted. According to the Washington Post, this lead to a slew of rushed and truly stupid movies like Transformers 2, G.I. Joe: The Rise of the Cobra, Terminator Salvation, and X-Men Origins: Wolverine.
The Winners In The Event Of A Strike
Legacy TV will suffer the hardest and most immediately, as they rely on audiences tuning in week to week to sell to advertisers and keep cash flowing. Meanwhile, streaming services with original content like Netflix, Hulu, and Amazon Prime are sitting pretty, according to Investors.com. While you have to uproot your routine of tuning into Kimmel or Colbert, maybe you’ll try one of those buzzed about new shows that’s easy to access and right there to binge. Now, Netflix and this lot could see their writers striking too. But with a backlog of original and classic content, it’s less likely to hurt them the way it will networks.
The next big winner could be reality TV, as was the case in 2007. Writers for those shows aren’t WGA members. So when the guild went on strike a decade ago, networks churned out scads of reality TV to fill the void. And that led to a fateful spin-off series, The Celebrity Apprentice, which revitalized Trump’s failing brand.
And it’s that former fecund reality star who could win big with the absence of late night shows that determinedly criticize his every move. Indie Wire posits that the abrupt stoppage of shows like Full Frontal with Samantha Bee, Last Week Tonight with John Oliver, Late Night with Seth Meyers and even Saturday Night Live could free President* Trump of his harshest critics, leaving the traditional news media to cover him. And we’ve seen before how they often fall short on that front.
The Pressure Is On
The WGA’s current contract in untenable in the landscape of Peak TV, just as their old contract was impossible in the evolving atmosphere that put shows online where their viewing wasn’t compensated through traditional residual agreements. And the guild is prepared to play hard ball.
Networks winning the late night wars won’t want to lose their strong footing (looking at CBS). And with upfronts coming soon, networks will be especially vulnerable to a strike. That’s the time when they sell their shows’ marketability to advertisers. And if you can’t tell advertisers when your show is even coming back, that’s a pretty damning negotiation position.
Despite the overwhelming vote, the WGA doesn’t want to strike. You’ll see this sentiment echoed across Twitter from screenwriters who nonetheless voted in favor of striking. No one who goes on strike wants to strike. It means not getting paid. It means spending your days outside with splintery picket signs. It means fearing your bills won’t be paid and your family won’t be fed. But they’ve been pushed to it by a league of networks, studios, and producers that refuse to recognize the value these writers put into their projects.
Here’s hoping the WGA and the AMPTP can come to an agreement before the month’s end. If only so Trump doesn’t get any more wins.