How the last WGA strike affected TV, from Heroes to Desperate Housewives
On Tuesday (2 May), the Writers Guild of America (WGA) went on strike after a deal failed to be reached with representatives from Hollywood studios.
The union represents more than 11,500 writers across film, television and other entertainment forms. As a result of the strike, production across the industry is expected to be affected, with multiple US late night shows already announcing that they are going on hiatus.
There is a precedent for this strike. In 2007, the WGA took industrial action, with a key issue in the negotiations being royalties from DVD sales.
The 2007/08 season strike lasted for 100 days. Nearly 25 per cent of primetime scripted programming over that period was lost completely.
With TV productions unable to employ unionised writers during the strike, a number of adjustments were made.
Firstly, there was a heavy pivot towards unscripted (reality) programming. While some scripted shows did hire non-union writing staff (such as General Hospital or Power Rangers), others entered a period of hiatus, or cut short existing seasons.
Among the series to have seasons cut short due to the writers strike were Breaking Bad, 30 Rock, Ugly Betty, Desperate Housewives, Family Guy, Friday Night Lights, Grey’s Anatomy, Heroes, and The Simpsons.
In some instances, the effects of the strike were worse than others. Many fans of Heroes blame the turbulence of the work stoppage for the poor reception of the show’s second season.
Many TV series were, however, able to air as scheduled, if the writing had already been completed before the strike began.
After “going dark” for the first two months of the strike, ome late night talk shows began airing episodes without writers, including The Tonight Show with Jay Leno, Late Night with Conan O’Brien and The Daily Show with Jon Stewart. O’Brien was praised for his solidarity with the striking writers, often performatively drawing attention to their absence by engaging in nakedly improvisational “bits”, such as timing how long he could spin his wedding ring atop his desk.
More than a dozen series were cancelled outright as a result of the strike, including Bionic Woman and Notes From the Underbelly.
Ultimately, the strike was brought to a close when the WGA struck a deal with the Alliance of Motion Picture and Television Producers, the entity that represents Hollywood’s studios, streamers and production companies in negotiations.
The writers guild has in fact gone on strike on five other previous occasions: in 1960, in 1973, in 1981, in 1985 and in 1988. The lattermost of these lasted for exactly five months, making it the longest strike to date.
This time around, there are a number of factors at stake in the negotiations. At the very heart of the dispute is the residual pay – royalties recieved for syndicated re-runs – which the WGA argues has not adjusted for the streaming business model.
Other issues to be agreed upon are “guardrails” for AI-generated content down the line, and other challenges that the streaming era has brought about.
With the two parties said to be far apart on a deal, some expect the strike to last for months.