Writers Strike Threatens to Cripple Industry


Scores of striking writers after leaving their desks, holding down the picket line at Rockefeller Center on Nov. 5. (Craig Calefate/The Observer)

Published: November 8, 2007

Imagine turning on the television hoping to catch a new episode of your favorite sitcom or drama, and all you see is reality television – so you decide to go to the movies instead. But the marquee displaying a lack of options has you running back to your DVD collection. Sounds like an entertainment nightmare. The scarier thought is that the strike from the Writers Guild of America (WGA) that started Nov. 5 may make this scenario an actuality.

The Writers Guild of America is a collective labor union combining the WGA East and West that represents thousands of writers in the motion picture and television industries in the U.S. They write movies, TV shows, news programs, documentaries, animated programs, CD-ROMs and content for new media, such as programs for the Internet and cell phones. The WGA works to negotiate with movie and TV producers to ensure that their writers get what they deserve.

Currently the WGA doesn’t feel like their work is getting the right compensation. The main organization that the WGA is fighting against is the Alliance of Motion Picture and Television Producers (AMPTP), which represents networks, studios and production companies. Some of the WGA’s demands are higher residual fees from DVD sales, as well as for movie and TV show downloads. They intend to reconfigure their contract to make up for their mistake of not including those kinds of clauses years ago when home video started taking off. Also, they want payment for writing Internet and cell phone exclusive content, as well as Guild coverage for animation and reality TV writers. Their view is that wherever and however their content is shown, if the networks and studios get paid, then so should they.

The studios argue that they cannot afford to make those payments. They use the money they get from DVD sales to balance the rising marketing and production costs. Consequently, studios are afraid that if they share their profits then those costs would rise even more. In regards to the money for online distribution, the studios feel it’s too early to determine how to pay the writers since the technology is so new and keeps changing, and the business model is not stable yet.

The discussion between the WGA and the AMPTP on renegotiating the contract began in July, with the WGA laying out what they wanted and the AMPTP rejecting many of their demands. Now that the WGA’s contract has expired on Oct. 31 and an agreement hasn’t been reached, the union has called for a strike. As of mid-October when it was announced that the WGA was planning the strike, 5,507 of the nearly 12,000 members voted, and 90.3 percent of them authorized the strike. The rules of the WGA strike require that neither writers nor their representatives pitch ideas, negotiate, offer writing services or sell any of their material to companies they are striking against, for all types of media, which basically means that they are to have no contact with the companies until negotiations are settled.

The WGA’s threats should have been taken more seriously because they have been on lengthy strikes before. There was a 13-week walkout in 1981 and a 22-week strike in 1988 that caused several Hollywood-dependent businesses to shut down, people to lose their homes, the fall TV season to be postponed and the industry to lose $500 million. “They can’t do that again,” said FCLC communications and media studies professor Karen Williams. She argues that a long strike would be unreasonable for TV writers. “Networks wouldn’t be able to compete. TV has a lot to lose and could lose their audience for good because they are in competition with so much more, like video games, the Internet and YouTube.”

Since the talks began, Hollywood had been working overtime to prepare for the worst. In anticipation of the strike, television networks had pushed their primetime programs to have their scripts completed earlier than usual. This was so that as many episodes as possible will be ready before the strike has a serious impact. As long as the scripts were finished by Oct. 31, the other parts of the production team, like the set crews, directors and actors can work on getting the episodes filmed for broadcast without any more need for the writers. Media reports say that, as of now, ABC, NBC and CBS probably have enough scripts to last until the all-important February sweeps, when advertising rates are set for stations, and this is for current shows and upcoming midseason series. However, if they don’t have enough, they will most likely hold off airing their remaining episodes in December or January, and wait to show them when it matters in February.

Williams reasons that the change from the strict television season structure of the 1980s will help lessen the impact of the strike. While the TV season would normally start and end at the same time, currently we have series premiering anytime of the year whether during the traditional fall in September, midseason in January or in the summer. Also, breaks during the season have become a common practice nowadays, so if there is a sudden stop of new episodes it won’t affect fans that much. “Business may be hurt because they plan in advance, but fans are used to a hiatus,” Williams said.

Of course if the strike goes long enough, there will be an increase in reality shows, sports shows and game shows. Just the CW alone has five completed reality series ready for broadcast. However, Williams said, “I don’t think people will accept reality TV as replacements. Good ones have big productions, and fans have expectations of high production value in reality TV, which you can’t just scrape together last minute.”

Williams thinks that late-night talk shows might be hit the hardest by the writers’ strike because writers are their ground stone, and they are essential every day to keep show relevant and topical. It’s expected that there will be many repeats, but perhaps hosts will try to do it on their own, like what David Letterman and Johnny Carson did during the 1988 WGA strike after several months of reruns.

Animation shows are fine for the rest of this season, since they’re completed a year in advance. Soap operas may be fine up to a month after a strike, but since repeats don’t work well with that type of serial drama, they may be replaced temporarily with news and sports programming. Or it could be a similar situation to 1988, when nonunion people took over scriptwriting for soaps. Replacement writers don’t sound like a good idea for serial dramas, according to Williams, “For shows that rely on complex narrative structure, it could rupture something intricate.” And fans will be the first ones to notice because, with the use of the Internet, fans have become more knowledgeable. Now, experts on their shows, TV true-bloods could potentially see flaws more clearly in plots and characters.

Kristen Everman, FCLC ’08, is interning as a writers’ assistant to the script supervisors for the ABC soap-opera “One Life to Live” and sees the effect of the strike first-hand. “I would say it’s forcing the non-creative to be creative,” she said and further explained that the script supervisors and producers are getting more involved in editing and rewriting the scripts that are in production. She also acknowledges that the change in writers could equal a change in vision of the soap, which could make it become a different show completely. She described that, last Thursday, the writers said their good-byes, not knowing when they would be back. And now that the stability of the long-running show has been disturbed, people are “running around with their heads chopped off.”

The strike will have less of an impact on the film industry. If the strike drags on too long, there may be fewer films released in 2008 and 2009, or, if the studios must, they can turn to old scripts that have been shelved. Screenplay deadlines were also being pushed to wrap up by Oct. 31, including ones for “G.I. Joe,” the “Da Vinci Code” sequel “Angels & Demons” and the 22nd “James Bond” installment. Some studios have even gone so far as to pay hundreds of thousands of dollars to writers to fix scripts so they are filmable by the deadline, like  the Vince Vaughn and Reese Witherspoon comedy “Four Christmases” and “X-Men” spin-off, “Origins: Wolverine”.

Williams stated that small independent films would be fine in going into production without the writers, but “big budget films have to be polished, and need writers working during production.” She continues, “Big films need constant tinkering and can have 20 script doctors in big films with different writers with different skill sets,” such as those that can incorporate witty dialogue, or fix the dialogue to suit an actor’s performance, or changing stage directions if locations are replaced due to unforeseen circumstances, or modifying product placement.

To Williams, the battle between the studios and the WGA appears to have no end in sight. “It seems like it would be a hard issue to resolve. Both have a lot at stake and the studio is keeping writers at bay as long as possible.”