Writer's Strike, Part Deux: The Basics
I was hanging out in the office with my partner in entertainment crime, pop music critic Sean Daly, when talk turned to the Hollywood writer's strike (What can I say? That's what passes for small talk among entertainment critics and reporters).
After answering a few of his questions, we both realized the average Tampa Bay-area reader doesn't necessarily know all the things I know about the implications of this strike, which began Nov. 5. Lots of information is available in cyberspace, especially at Nikke Finke's most excellent Deadline Hollywood Daily blog. But in case you haven't been keeping up, I decided to cobble together a quick Q&A column to help you sort the issues out.
With news that both sides have decided to renew negotiations on Nov. 26, let’s hope the need for this strike cheat sheet will be short-lived.
Q: What’s the point of this strike, anyway?
In stark terms, the union representing America’s TV and film writers, the Writer’s Guild of America, has been unable to negotiate a new contract with the group representing the companies which employ them, the Alliance of Motion Picture and Television Producers. Both sides say the major sticking point remains writers’ insistence on obtaining a compensation structure for revenue from online and digital uses of products they create. And because unions representing actors and directors must also negotiate new contracts next year, some writers suspect the producers of attempting to avoid setting an expensive precedent by standing tough here.
Q: Why are stars such as Julia Louis Dreyfus and Jay Leno out on the picket lines with writers?
There’s likely four reasons most stars are showing public support for striking writers. 1) The actors’ guild must negotiate a contract next year, and will demand similar compensation. 2) Some stars involved in writing their own shows, such as Jon Stewart and Jay Leno, may also be WGA members. 3) So far, the public supports the writers, which makes taking their side now good insulation against criticism when the strike really begins to affect TV and film programming. 4) Currying favor with writers now may mean snagging juicy parts later.
Q: If the writers are on strike, why are so many TV shows still airing new episodes?
Many TV shows work on advanced schedules, so some series have small reservoirs of new episodes even after production ends. In a typical Hollywood irony, producers had writers craft as many scripts as possible to stockpile material, potentially minimizing the impact of their own strike. But since some executive producers who supervise filming -– called showrunners in industry-speak -– have also joined the picketers, production has stopped on dozens of shows and films, including most recently, the DaVinci Code sequel Angels and Demons.
Q: If TV series have stockpiled scripts, why are so many shows not filming?
See above. Showrunners are former writers and have to work closely with them, so it would make sense that some would walk out with their writing staffs. But some studios have sent breach of contract letters to executive producers, insisting they return to perform the producing end of their jobs. One of the biggest producers to obey that request is Carlton Cuse, executive producer of Lost, who told the Wall Street Journal he owed it to the show’s fans to finish production on eight filmed episodes.
Q: How long could this last?
A writer pal of mine who works in Los Angeles predicted the strike could last a year. But Hollywood veterans who have been watching viewership numbers for TV shows erode streadily over the years know what a disaster that would be. Talks are reportedly scheduled for Nov. 26, and the early pain of this walkout – falling ratings for late night reruns, paychecks halted for writers and striking executive producers, for example – should be ample inspiration for progress.
Q: What do the writers have against Eva Longoria, anyway?
Longoria, who said repeatedly that she supports the writers (and even brought them pizza) initally drew criticism by deciding to film a scene for Desperate Housewives on the strike’s second day. Because she crossed the picket line and continued working, writers disrupted filming with the lame-o chant “We write the story-a, for Eva Longoria.” No wonder producers are thinking about standing firm.
Q: How will my favorite show be affected?
Late night shows, which depend on writers for material daily, are already in reruns. But there are rumors some shows are devising ways to return to new episodes without writers, which Johnny Carson and David Letterman did back in 1988 during the 22-week strike. This means balancing the wishes of fans for new material and the need to keep 100-plus crew members employed against the impact of disrespecting the strike.
Sitcoms need writers to tweak jokes during filming, so many of them have stopped filming. And soap operas, which also use lots of material and film only a couple of weeks ahead, are likely on the verge of reruns now. Scripted dramas are insulated the best, some with enough new episodes to last until the new year, though producers of shows such as Lost, Heroes and Scrubs have spoken publicly about crafting truncated endings to their current seasons using footage already filmed.
Q: Why are reality shows unaffected by this?
The WGA attempted to unionize reality show writers earlier this year. But producers either dropped writers and hired new staffers with “Editor” in their job titles, or simply rebuffed the unionizing efforts altogether. So shows such as Dancing with the Stars and Phenomenon can go on, while production on new shows such as a revival of American Gladiators have kicked into high gear.
Q: Why did an executive at the Fox network say the strike could be good for them?
Because they can still present in January the most popular show on TV, the reality TV singing contest American Idol. With even fewer scripted shows around as competition, the network could rule an incredibly diminished field. They also have a raft of midseason shows such as the Terminator spin off Sarah Connor Chronicles ready to go.
Q: Will we have a fall TV season in 2008?
That depends on how long the strike lasts, of course. Generally, pilot episodes for new shows are cast in January and February, shot in March and April and selected for each network’s fall schedule in May. It won’t take long for a prolonged strike to upset that delicate applecart, producing a truncated slate of new shows, even if the two sides reach agreement by February or March. Even the winter press tour organized by the Television Critics Association to preview the spring TV season is in danger of cancellation.
And once viewers have been forced to subsist on a TV diet of reality shows, newsmagazines, threadbare late night shows and reruns for six or seven months, few experts expect them all to return right away. Or ever.