Writers Vote to Strike and a Season’s Shows Hang in the Balance

The Washington Post
Tuesday, April 25, 2017

We’re in an era of peak TV, but the fire hose flow of shows — from late-night comedy to scripted dramas — could come to a screeching halt very soon.

Members of the Writers Guild of America, which represents the scribes behind television and movies, overwhelmingly voted Monday to authorize their union to call a strike. This comes as negotiations between the union and studios barrel toward a May 1 deadline, when the old contract expires.

Even though there are more shows than ever before and the small-screen business seems to be booming, writers have some major grievances with how Hollywood pays them, as well as with the guild’s pension and health plans. And if an agreement cannot be worked out between the WGA and the Alliance of Motion Picture and Television Producers (which is representing the studios), writers will strike for the first time in a decade.

Here’s what you need to know.

Q: How will a strike affect my daily intake of network, cable and streaming shows?

A: That all depends on how long a strike would last. Scripted shows could have to end their seasons early and viewers will see a big dent in the summer TV season.

But the most immediate effect would be felt by late-night comedy, where daily or weekly episodes are churned out of New York or Los Angeles, with legions of writers penning jokes, monologues and elaborate sketches.

That could be a big deal in 2017, with Donald Trump as president and a big appetite among viewers for political comedy on TV. For instance, Saturday Night Live is experiencing some of its highest ratings in years, so much so that NBC decided to air its final four episodes live, coast to coast. There are still three episodes left before SNL breaks for the summer — May 6, 13 and 20 — that could never get made. NBC also planned special prime-time, 30-minute editions of Weekend Update for August. Comedy Central will premiere a Trump-parody talk show this week, and roll out a new post-Daily Show series in the fall.

Putting late night aside, it’s possible a whole bunch of viewers won’t notice too much of a difference because of the ability to binge-watch on streaming services such as Netflix and Hulu. A strike may end up being the time viewers just catch up on all that good TV they missed.

Q: Will writers actually strike?

A: Maybe. Maybe not. Monday’s vote authorizes the guild (which is the combined effort of two unions representing writers in the east and west) to call a strike. Among eligible members who cast ballots, 96 percent of them voted to authorize the strike. But the guild and studios still have a week to hash things out and finalize a new contract. After May 1, the old contract expires and the union has promised a work stoppage.

“Should this occur, writing for television, feature films and digital series will cease,” the guild said in a letter to media buyers earlier this month. The guild announced it would resume talks on Tuesday.

So, basically, the studios and union have a week to work things out. And the studios have publicly been keeping mum.

Q: Why are the writers unhappy?

A: Central issues involve shoring up the WGA’s health plan, which is facing a deficit, securing family leave and protecting the guild’s current pension plan. The WGA argues that writers’ average yearly income fell while studios’ operating profits doubled from a decade ago.

The other main point at play involves how writers are compensated.

The flood of new shows on air and digital platforms, which provide endless space for content, is fueling “peak TV” and changing how shows are made. But writers are still paid per episode, an older formula. There are way more scripted shows now than in the past, but the norm has shifted from 22-episode seasons to about 10 to 13, and shows now take longer to produce. In recent years, the number of scripted series jumped by 50 percent, but the number of produced episodes only grew by 6 percent, according to the Hollywood Reporter.