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The Dartmouth
May 27, 2024 | Latest Issue
The Dartmouth

WGA strike wreaks havoc on TV networks, industry

Get ready for your eyes to bleed.

Come early next year, the major offerings on network television will include a new batch of Sanjayas and a few desperate D-listers vying to work for Donald Trump. Nonscripted programming is in; scripted dramas, comedies and variety programs: auf wiedersehen!

The changes you'll find on TV are, as you may know, the fallout of a strike by the Writers Guild of America, a union of over 12,000 film and television screenwriters on the East and West Coasts. Following three months of tense negotiations, the WGA and the American Motion Picture and Television Producers failed to agree on terms of their three-year contract by the Oct. 31 deadline. The WGA scheduled a strike, which began Nov. 5.

No writers means no new production of any television show. The first area affected is late-night television, which requires topical writing every weeknight for monologues and skits. Shows like "The Late Show With David Letterman," "The Daily Show With Jon Stewart" and "Saturday Night Live" have been in reruns since the strike began three weeks ago.

Next to go will be primetime programming, which is still running new material until each series runs out of episodes completed before the walkout. You can anticipate most shows going black by early next year. For information on the fate of your favorite shows, visit Wikipedia's show-by-show guide to the strike, which is quite thorough and updated often.

In the meantime, expect the networks to increase the amount of reality programming on the air. More nonscripted fare, like game shows, will be moved to primetime. (will "Deal or No Deal" become the next overexposed "Who Wants to Be a Millionaire?") Of all networks, FOX is in particularly fine shape -- no other network generates as much revenue from a nonscripted show as FOX does with the unstoppable "American Idol."

While I'll miss "30 Rock," "Rescue Me" and all the other great shows that I look forward to each week, I can only imagine the strike's impact on the industry and the Los Angeles economy. The Los Angeles Times estimates that city will lose $20 million a day in direct production spending. Especially affected are employees on the sets of shows -- makeup artists, production assistants and other crew members, many of whom have already been laid off. In response, David Letterman has agreed to pay his out-of-work staff out of his own pocket.

The WGA represents film writers too, but the strike's effect on the film industry will not be as immediate. In advance of the strike, studios stockpiled existing movie scripts. Additionally, films require less on-set script tweaking than TV shows. Only a few major projects have halted production or are otherwise impacted, including Ron Howard's Dan Brown prequel "Angels and Demons" and Oliver Stone's "Pinkville," a war flick starring Bruce Willis, which allegedly has been scrapped.

Why all the fuss? The strike targets consumers whose television-watching regimen consists of TV on DVD, streaming video on networks' websites (like abc.com), illegally downloaded torrents, smartphone downloads, websites of compiled streaming video (RIP TV Links) and other nonlive venues of programming.

Viewing habits are testament to the growing tension between old and new media -- the ascension of digital technology in place of the movies, radio, music, television and print media as you knew it growing up. New media implies globalization, faster interactive communication and interconnectivity. It could, and probably will, phase out television broadcasting altogether. Online content will continue to expand, especially because, as young people become increasingly stimulated by convenience as well as profoundly computer-literate, they will demand it. You and I know that watching "Grey's Anatomy" or "Scrubs" online is incredibly easy, dependable and enjoyable. (Well, maybe Grey's isn't that last one ... but I digress.)

Many believe that the 2007 strike will cause drastic changes for the medium of television, perhaps by accelerating the impact of new media. After all, rapid, wholesale shifts in television viewership following a strike have precedent. The last WGA strike in 1988 introduced television audiences to nonscripted reality programming in the absence of scripted shows, the most notable success of which was "Cops." Also, cable television expanded enormously in the years that followed, gaining from the hemorrhaging of network viewership.

Whatever the strike's implications for the future of new media, both sides are anxious about new media becoming an elephant in the room in the future of TV -- after all, that's what slaughtered the music industry. Digital music piracy came out of new media, and it compelled the industry to develop a digital model of music to compete.

Television is next. A mass market, web-based design for television essentially began when abc.com's full episode player went live in May 2006. A second new media model involved purchasing a copy of a program and storing it on a computer (i.e. buying an episode of your favorite show on iTunes). But the models are still in their infancy. Producers are reluctant to call "webisodes" and live streaming anything more than promotional material, even though the content is itself often interspersed with advertisements (Now that's what we call meta-commercialism!). Writers think the networks are withholding profits, and they want a share.

This is the crux of the WGA protest. There are additional grievances -- whether writers ought to get paid for reality television and animation, how much to increase residuals for DVD sales and how much writers ought to get paid for content that is sold and distributed digitally -- but the negotiation impasse mainly surrounds free streaming video residuals. Writers depend on residuals in what can be a mercilessly volatile business. Producers say a compensation model for online content is still years away.

Until then, the Hollywood writer acts the part of the everyday picketer. This isn't a struggling, underpaid worker's union out on the sidewalks of LA or New York, though. It's white collar, often six-figure-earning Hollywood hotshots. Accordingly, the pickets outside Hollywood studios often blur the line between protest and social event. A-listers like Eva Longoria and Ben Stiller and politicians like John Edwards often join the well-organized ranks, marching along in baseball caps and jeans, chanting creative slogans and participating in "theme days." Alicia Keys gave an impromptu performance on Hollywood Boulevard in support (as if that legitimizes the cause). In the presence of so much celebrity, the writers often confess to joining the picket lines because it's entertaining. Hollywood will be Hollywood, after all.

The writers have the sympathy of the public, fueled by a makeshift online campaign of YouTube videos of dancing picketers and a formalized series of public service announcements directed by George Hickenlooper. Go check out the latter at SpeechlessWithoutWriters.com -- the PSAs are fancy schmancy black-and-white montages of stars like Susan Sarandon, Kate Beckinsale, David Schwimmer and Andre 3000 and -- you guessed it -- they're not saying much of anything.

There is reason to believe that, although negotiations between both parties resumed last Monday, a resolution won't be reached any time soon. The producers might look to employ hardball tactics because they want to set a precedent for June 2008, when their contracts with the Screen Actor's Guild and the Director's Guild expire. Should the strike last into next year, the timetable for shooting pilots would be delayed, and the fall 2008 season would face delays extending into the holiday season.

It's a sad, sad day for the entertainment business and the consumers bound to it. For now, enjoy the last few first-run episodes of good TV. There's a whole lot of Tila Tequila and "Big Brother" on the horizon, and it ain't gonna be pretty.