We could be less than a week away from a writers’ strike against TV and movie studios. Negotiations resume Tuesday — when the Writers Guild of America announces results of a strike authorization vote — ahead of a May 1 deadline, but if talks between the union and the group representing studios and production companies don’t result in a new contract, a strike will begin on May 2.
A strike wouldn’t affect the end of the current TV season (for the most part, anyway). If it lasts a while, however — the 2007-08 writers’ strike went on for 100 days — you’d likely have to wait longer than usual for the start of fall TV.
We’ll get to what each side wants later, but first up, let’s look at what on-screen product will look like if a strike happens.
What if a strike happens?
If you don’t watch late-night shows, you probably won’t notice many changes right away. Shows like “The Tonight Show,” “The Daily Show” and “Jimmy Kimmel Live” would be the first casualties and would go into repeats pretty much immediately. The final episodes of “Saturday Night Live’s” season, scheduled for May 6, 13 and 20, would be in jeopardy as well since the show is written week to week.
Production on just about all primetime shows will be wrapped by May 1, so schedules for the remainder of the TV season will be unaffected. Summer schedules on the broadcast networks should remain more or less intact, since they’re heavy on unscripted shows. The handful of scripted series in the summer should be (mostly) set too.
The big streaming services will also proceed as normal for a while, since their all-at-once release model means production has to be done before a show premieres. Cable shows might be more case by case.
The big question will be the fall schedule, which the broadcast networks announce the week of May 15. Network shows typically convene writers’ rooms in June and start production in July. A strike lasting more than a couple weeks could imperil that timetable and push the start of the fall season back from its traditional late-September launch.
Several high-profile cable and streaming shows — including “The Walking Dead,” “Jessica Jones” and “American Horror Story” — are slated to start production in May. “Star Trek Discovery,” the new “Trek” series destined for CBS All Access, will be midway through filming its first season. A strike would disrupt schedules for all of them.
What the writers want
The Writers Guild notes that even though the Peak TV era has created more jobs for writers, wages have been falling for most writers thanks to shorter seasons and script fees per episode stretching over more time.
Per The Hollywood Reporter, the number scripted shows shot up by 46 percent (266 to 389) between the 2011-12 and 2014-15 seasons. Yet in the same time period, the number of episodes made grew by only 6 percent (4,806 to 5,091) as streaming services, cable channels and, increasingly, broadcast networks all aired more shorter-run shows. The guild says more than two thirds of shows produced in 2015-16 aired 13 or fewer episodes.
(Both sides are refraining from public comment on the negotiations while talks are still planned.)
Further, the guild says that script fees per episode are being stretched over a longer time than in the past — as long as three weeks, where the previous standard was two. That effectively lowers a writer’s weekly pay. Writers also want more flexibility to work on more than one short-run show per year; currently they’re often held on exclusive deals that can leave them idle for several months.
The guild also wants more contributions to the union health plan from studios; parity for script fees across network, cable and streaming shows; and better residuals. The union says profit at the six major studios has doubled since the 2007-08 strike, and it’s only asking for a slightly larger piece of an expanded pie.
What the studios say
The Alliance of Motion Picture and Television Producers, which negotiates with Hollywood unions on behalf of studios, has reportedly offered some concessions with regard to exclusivity and pay, at least for lower-level writers. Health coverage remains a big point of contention.
Studio sources have also complained that the profit figure the WGA cites for the six major entertainment companies — $51 billion in 2015 — includes profits from other parts of their business. The union counters that almost $34 billion of that profit comes from work written by Writers Guild members.