Unless a miracle happens, Hollywood's TV and film writers will agree to strike next week. If anyone remembers the devastating effect the last writers’ strike had on the film and television industry, there’s reason to be concerned.
Almost 10 years ago to date, members of the Writers Guild of America took to the streets with signs and angry voices, fighting for their right to increased wages and more suitable hours. Although guild members today are looking to strike for similar reasons, some of the industry’s current growing pains are at play, too.
One of the biggest issues hinges around television’s shift from lengthier network series to more condensed shows on premium channels like HBO and streaming services like Netflix. Many series now air on networks that don’t have to fill a traditional 22-episode season order, running much smaller numbers of episodes per season instead. Writers in the WGA only get paid per episode, resulting in a huge pay cut, even if the production periods last the same length as longer network shows.
Howard Suber, a professor at University of California, Los Angeles, who specializes in labor issues within the television and film industry, told Polygon that being a screenwriter for either television or film is like trying to win a gold medal. Suber said that it’s an insanely competitive field, but unlike athletes who win gold, writers aren’t usually recognized for their individual achievements. To many viewers and Hollywood execs, they’re seen as expendable groups that can be easily replaced.
Suber added that you could look at every strike that the Writers Guild of America has participated in over the years and pin it on one particular sentiment: “If the screenplay is so important as everyone in the industry so piously protests, then why are screenwriters treated like shit?”
This is one of the most egregious issues facing the screenwriter community, but it’s not the only one. As we prepare for weeks, if not months, of writers potentially being on strike, television series and films will be greatly impacted. While it’s natural to focus on how this will affect us, as consumers of entertainment, it’s crucial to understand why the Writers Guild is mulling another strike in the first place.
The gist of it
The are a number of issues the WGA — the union of writers that work with some of the biggest studios and networks in the world — is protesting, but the three biggest can be broken down into these categories. As studio profits increase, writers haven’t seen any raises in their compensation, their health care plans are about to implode and, while we’re in an era of peak TV, seasons are shorter than ever.
Let’s break down each of these carefully.
There have never been more TV shows available to viewers than there are right now. John Landgraf, FX’s president of programming, has spoken about the problem of “too much TV” every summer for the past few press tours hosted by the Television Critics Association. Last year, Landgraf said there will be more than 500 scripted series on television in 2017, not accounting for the number of reality shows and other miscellaneous programs that also need staff writers and vie for viewers’ attention.
Part of that is because streaming services like Netflix, Amazon and Hulu have money to invest in hundreds of new series without having to worry about slotting their shows into a specific time during the week. And because their revenue isn’t based on advertisers, they must rely on subscriptions to provide the profit needed to fund new series, which means attracting as many consumers as possible with a plethora of content.
All of this competition spurs creativity, according to Landgraf.
“I think it would be particularly bad if anyone in one company, and I don't care what company that is, if they were able to seize a 40 or 50 or 60 percent market share in storytelling," Landgraf said during his 2016 TCA presentation. "They can't double again and double again and double again because the entire earth's surface would be covered in Netflix shows in 20 years."
But Suber believes that the bubble will essentially burst, and that there will be a decline in long-form drama series on television. Suber believes that a writers’ strike will help get that started. Television networks need to meet a deadline, and if they can’t, they lose money. With lost funds comes a decreased number of television shows, plummeting ad sales and networks ordering fewer series.
“It’s also well known the number of long-form dramas has doubled in the past five years — the good news is there has never been more shows on television than in the last three of four years,” Suber said. “The pattern is ‘whatever exists isn't going to exist for much longer.’ I think there's a really good chance within a couple of years the number of scripted shows is going to be dramatically reduced and the strikes will help bring that on.”
And while we have more shows, the seasons are shorter. The effect of having more 13-episode series than ever before on these networks can be seen in the compensation writers receive for their work. Writers are being asked to remain exclusive to a network or series and, because these series are shorter than ever before, their salary is impacted.
According to the WGA, this is what writers are contending with:
1. The number of episodes, and therefore, episode fees are half the traditional number on many series.
2. These fewer episode fees are being amortized across more than two weeks per episode.
3. Writers are held exclusive and under option even when not working on these short season series.
4. Residuals are too low in the emerging rerun markets.
5. Script fees remain unequal to the network rates for the growing areas of the industry.
To put it simply, “with the per-episode payment structure for TV writers, it pays for only half of a traditional full season, even though it usually takes the writer off the market for a full year.” Writers don’t have time — or permission — to go and find a secondary gig within the industry, even though they’re only being paid for half of what they used to make.
In a guest column for The Hollywood Reporter, journalist-turned-screenwriter Marc Bernardin said that despite being scared out of his mind, the strike was the only move that made sense for his struggling community.
“I believe the issues facing writers are worth striking for,” Bernardin wrote. “I believe that our leadership and membership don't actually want a strike. I believe that the studios don't want a strike either, but they are companies not in the business of giving up money unless they have to, so they're testing our resolve. I believe that tomorrow is something worth digging your heels in for today.
“None of that belief changes the fact that I am scared shitless.”
Suber explained that one of the issues the writers are striking against — an exclusivity clause that doesn’t allow writers signed to a specific studio to work for another after their project has ended — has hindered salaries for years. In today’s modern age of shorter television seasons and a wider variety of networks, it’s ridiculous to try and ask writers not to work for two-thirds of a year, he said.
“The exclusivity clause sort of harkens back to the era when you had a 20-something or 30-something episode series,” Suber said. “So it's not realistic — certainly not fair — to prohibit someone for not working for two-thirds of the year. They can afford to yield on that and the writers can afford to claim victory.”
The other big problem
The second problem: The WGA’s healthcare plan is nearly bankrupt and on the verge of imploding. How did this happen? A large part of it is due to the union’s health care being self-contained. The WGA isn’t partnered with outside insurance agencies, like Blue Cross. As a result, the union and its health care plan depend entirely on whether or not there’s money flowing into it.
When writers get paid by the studios they’re contracted through, 9.5 percent of that paycheck is supposed to go to health benefits. Writers don’t have to pay out of their own pocket for healthcare, and premiums are generally taken care of by the studio. If the money is flowing and the WGA is in good financial standing, the health plan offered to writers is often considered one of the best.
That being said, the pool of money set aside for members’ healthcare has been running low for years. Based on projections made, the Guild will soon be close to $150 million in debt. Writers won’t be able to use their union’s healthcare plan — where, again, 9.5 percent of their salaried checks go — for medical purposes. You can see the decline in the chart below.
Writers are facing unfair compensation, and that in combination with receding health care has reached a boiling point for the union, according to Suber.
What does this mean for us?
And here’s the big question. In order to understand just how bad this could get, we have to look back to the strike of 2007 and 2008.
Two things happened as the result of the writers’ strike: TV shows were forced to end early — or were canceled — and movies went into production earlier as a way to try and get ahead of the strike.
While the film industry was certainly impacted — Transformers: Revenge of the Fallen went into early production, for example — the more noticeable effects were seen on television. Think back to series like Heroes, Pushing Daisies or 30 Rock. While 30 Rock and Heroes saw shortened seasons, Pushing Daisies was effectively cancelled.
One of the possible strike’s biggest victims will be late-night talk shows, which have picked up steam in the current political climate. The writers rooms on late-night shows are some of the biggest in the industry; if they’re on strike, there’s a good chance that we’ll see a complete blackout.
The same thing could happen with Saturday Night Live. The late-night variety show is having one of its most successful seasons in years — thanks to Trump — so Saturday Night Live could just end its season a little early. A large portion of Saturday Night Live’s writing staff are also performers, putting them in a weird place.
Simply put, much like 2007 and 2008, we’ll likely see a number of series drop in quality or stop airing altogether if this year’s strike goes through.
Suber said this is less likely to happen this time around for one important reason: streaming.
“If the major networks are running reruns, well, then more and more people are going to be encouraged to go to Netflix or Amazon,” Suber said. “This is crucial. Netflix especially did something starting about two years ago that a lot of people said was crazy. They went in to hyperdrive in terms of producing new programming material. And that stuff is already in the pipeline. That stuff is a backlog, but it can probably outlast any strike.
“So Netflix is going to have new series to dump on their venue while the television networks won't. If they got old reruns on the conventional channels and they got something — anything — new on Netflix or Amazon, what do you think is going to happen?”
Another big question is whether or not this will have an impact on fall and winter programming. The fall and winter seasons are considered the most profitable for the networks, and pilot season — when new shows premiere — falls between September and October. If a deal isn’t reached by mid-August or sooner, new shows may be canceled before even premiering, and some of the biggest shows on TV — think The Big Bang Theory, The Walking Dead, etc. — could be affected.
The last writers’ strike went from Nov. 5, 2007 until Feb. 10, 2008. That strike came at the worst time for TV writers, but with more networks focusing on yearlong prestige entertainment these days, this summer’s slate of programming could also be affected by a 2017 strike.
Here’s why the networks will want to smooth this out quicker than last time
In 2007, Netflix wasn’t the beast that it’s considered to be today. It hadn’t become a network that invested $6 billion into creating hundreds of original series. It wasn’t investing billions more into Southern California real estate to create more films and series in-house. Simply put, Netflix was barely competition, let alone serious competition.
Hulu and Amazon Video weren’t serious competitors either. YouTube was just starting to become a reliable source of new, day-to-day entertainment.
Even though the networks were left in shambles for a few months, they didn’t have to worry about people finding their entertainment elsewhere. Even if the networks had to resort to reruns for a few months, they knew their reruns were only competing with other networks’ reruns.
Now, however, there is a slew of new content coming from Netflix all of the time. There are better options on Amazon and Hulu. People can spend their time watching endless hours of content on YouTube. There has never been this much TV available for little to no cost.
A study released last year confirmed that increases in subscriptions to Netflix resulted in a 50 percent drop of viewership for most networks. The number of hours people spend watching Netflix instead of regular networks is expected to increase by 14 percent over the next few years. Netflix is seeing a demand from viewers while networks are seeing a loss; networks can’t accept a summer or fall without fresh television shows for audiences who are already on the brink of leaving.
The networks are at a larger risk of losing viewers now than compared to 2007, and that may be a good thing for this strike. It could mean network executives are more likely to want to negotiate faster and give the writers what they want so they don’t have to compete against new series from Netflix. While Netflix’s series entering development will be affected, the streaming service has an entire backlog of new shows it hasn’t premiered yet and other series acquired through licensing agreements to keep subscribers happy.
OK, so when should I prepare for this?
The final vote will take place on May 2. If a majority of WGA members vote yes, they’ll go on strike the following day. The last vote saw more than 90 percent of writers agree to striking.
Suber believes that if the strike happens, it will last for a shorter period of time than the last one. At the end of the day, Suber said, the writers just want to be fairly compensated and feel like they’ve made some kind of progression within their industry. Essentially, they want a win.
“They’ll strike and then they’ll agree to do something that they can claim victory over,” he said. “Anything they can claim victory over.”
This looks like it’s going to happen — there’s almost no question about it. So prepare to binge Friends again, or ration your binging when it comes to new series. Who knows how long this will go on for?