Pens down: Writer’s Guild goes on strike

Writers picket Walt Disney Studios in Burbank, Calif.

Both WGA West and WGA East walk off the job over numerous issues; strike likely to last months

In a move that was expected, the Writer’s Guild went on strike Monday for the first time in fifteen years, shutting down Hollywood and suspending production on most late-night talk shows and a few daytime shows.

The strike involves both WGA West and WGA East; picketing took place this week in both New York and Los Angeles. Given the huge number of issues as both sides are so far apart on everything, it’s expected the strike could drag on for months, potentially delaying the start of the fall television season and could last as long as the 1988 strike, which lasted 153 days from March 7 to August 7. The last Writer’s Strike lasted 100 days, from November 5, 2007 to February 12, 2008. 

Both WGA branches are getting support from other unions, including SAG-AFTRA and the Director’s Guild, both are next to negotiate with the studios. Other unions showing support include IATSE; the Teamsters; writers guilds from the UK, Canada, and Australia; and locally, the Chicago Teachers Union, who had their last strike (not related to Covid protocols) in 2019. WGA came close to striking in 2017; the 2020 negotiations were hampered by Covid and a three-year deal was hastily struck. That expired May 1, the negotiations to strike a deal by then failed and so, here we are.

There are significant changes this time around that could make reaching a deal harder to end the strike quickly. Since the last work stoppage, there has been massive media consolidation in Hollywood – Comcast merging with NBCUniversal; CBS and Viacom reuniting to become Paramount Global; Disney buying much of 20th Century Fox’s assets; and Discovery absorbing Warner Bros. Combined with the entrants of big tech companies Netflix, Apple, Google, and Amazon in the last decade, the studios now have massive leverage, who negotiate under the American Motion Picture and Television Production banner, or AMPTP. 

Another change is the base salary for a TV and film writer has declined in the last few years as the “gigification” of the industry continues as the total number of scripted shows have ballooned to nearly five hundred – nearly five times what it was during the last strike at the dawn of the streaming era. Since 2008, the average episode order has shrunk from the standard 22 episodes to around ten, with some shows even having six-to-eight episode seasons, which means less pay for writers. Residuals have also shrunk as the off-network syndication business has all but vanished, leaving not much for back-end profits for writers and the principals behind the shows, unlike the days when Bill Cosby and Jerry Seinfeld benefited from such a system. Streaming residuals are really next to non-existent, with writers literally getting pennies. 

The Writer’s Strike means late-night shows such as “The Tonight Show With Jimmy Fallon”, who depend on WGA writers, go dark. (NBC)

Yet another is the use of “mini-rooms”, a concept not even heard of until a few years ago when AMC invented the concept (for more on “mini-rooms”, click here.) Then there’s the artificial intelligence equation, where studios now want to use features such as ChatGPT and other programs to develop scripts as writers fear they may be replaced by such technology. Another stumbling block is Hollywood is in cutback mode with Warner Bros. Discovery scrubbing shows from HBO Max to save money and Paramount Global announcing Thursday they posted a $1.1 billion loss in the first quarter

There are other pressing issues too complex to discuss here; so in other words, when you combine all of this together, you are looking at what could be a very long work stoppage. The CEOs of many of these studios make on average about $50 million per year – and that’s higher than the payroll of the entire Chicago White Sox roster (which is sad when you think about it.) Horror stories have emerged in recent weeks, include a story of a writer for FX’s The Bear having to write scripts in a tiny New York City apartment and had to use the public library’s Wi-Fi whenever the power went out. And as new Twitter owner Elon Musk has become the new darling of Wall Street, his brash and ruthless persona has led other execs to follow his style – one of the reasons why this strike may wind up being the longest ever. 

As we enter week one of this strike, the networks’ late-night shows are already in reruns and is likely to be indefinitely. In terms of daytime, CBS’ The Talk has already gone dark, though it is not known if any other shows are being shut down as the closures come as the May sweeps are already underway (So far, no Chicago-shot show has been shut down, though Chicago Fire ends production on their season Friday.) Drew Barrymore dropped out of host of MTV’s Movie & TV awards this Sunday, which will be held despite the strike. 

Will the strike effect the entertainment business at large? It’s too early to tell, but so far studios, station groups, and other conglomerates don’t seem to be too concerned. In a conference call with investors this week, Sinclair Broadcasting said the networks would replace scripted shows with reality fare and get higher ratings anyway. But in February 2008 when the strike disrupted the networks’ schedules, ratings for stations’ late local newscasts declined significantly as those reality shows mostly flopped with viewers (the winter edition of Big Brother, for one.) If you looked the track record for new reality shows this season (see The Real Love Boat fiasco), it’s obvious Sinclair execs haven’t been paying attention to any kind of programming trends. The NFL and college football seasons will likely carry the broadcast networks through the strike this fall if it lasts that long, but as we all know, they can’t play every night. 

The upfronts will take place two weeks from now, and so far, it is not known if the current scripted shows are going to be replaced with other fare, though it was announced this week Dancing With The Stars is returning to ABC this fall after a year at Disney Plus. The WGA is expected to picket all upfront presentations, so we’ll see if the stars cross the picket lines. 

Watch this space and on the site’s Twitter feed for up-to-the date information on the work stoppage. For a full archive of T Dog Media’s coverage of the 2007-08 Writer’s Strike, click here (some of the posts are short and contain a lot of outdated jokes aimed at the studios, but it is a good guide on what the issues were at the time and how they compare to today’s.) A new Writer’s Strike tag for 2023 is being created starting with this post. 


Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *