The Television Writers’ Strike

The Writers Guild of America strike against the Alliance of Motion Picture & Television Producers may be a long and painful one:

LOS ANGELES (Hollywood Reporter) – A sickening sense is spreading through Hollywood that the Writers Guild of America strike could drag on for some time, if only because the union and the studios have become so polarized after their 3-1/2 months of stormy negotiations.

Yet management and labor representatives do seem to share a single belief: Negotiating is all leverage.

Those acquainted with collective bargaining commonly stress that the process has nothing to do with debating the issues. It’s about a swap of proposals based on who holds the upper hand at any point in time.

Such thinking could be seen during the turbulent contract talks between the WGA and the Alliance of Motion Picture & Television Producers (AMPTP) and is also reflected in the current writers strike, which began on Monday.

When labor negotiators believe they hold a special advantage due to special circumstances — say, the timing of talks relative to a TV season or to other guilds’ contract expirations — they flex their muscles to leverage those factors. Similarly, management reps know when labor negotiators are feeling vulnerable and adjust their contract posture accordingly.

But the abortive contract talks between film and TV writers and their studio employers have been additionally complicated by the parties’ initially staking out positions some might call extreme and most would characterize as aggressive.

“I believe the writers were intent on having a strike,” a top studio executive said Tuesday. “That was their goal, unless we said yes to their demands.”

There are some signs that the actors’ and directors’ unions will go out on strike in sympathy with the writers. If that happens the results of the strike may be felt that much sooner. Wikipedia has a good article on the strike.

I’ve been trying to come up with a hook for commenting on this without a great deal of success but bear with me. The last WGA strike was in 1988. It lasted five months and the repercussions of the strike are still being felt. To understand how take a look at the 1986-1987 primetime network television schedule. It included just a few hours of news and sports programming, very little that we’d associate with the “reality programming” that is so much a part of the primetime schedule today. Compare that with the 1989-1990 schedule. There’s an additional four hours of things approximating reality programming and, most importantly, COPS, the foundational reality program which was introduced specifically as a time-filler during the writers’ strike.

The strike had cost the networks 10% of their audience who had turned to cable. It also created a wedge that Fox slipped into and Fox has been gaining viewership ever since.

I don’t know that the 1988 strike was causal; it undoubtedly just accelerated trends that were already in place. But what it definitely meant was that fewer writers were being employed in network television than had been before the strike. In that sense whatever else the strike accomplished it was a Pyrrhic victory.

It isn’t 1988. In 1985 the Big 3 television networks (ABC, CBS, NBC) had nearly 70% of the viewing audience. Now it’s something like half.

I find a tremendous irony in the employment of the labor action, a 19th century device, in support of residuals, essentially a 20th century device, neither of which I believe has much future in the 21st century. Both depend on limiting entry and access and with the advent of the Internet and cheap high quality recording and production technology that’s increasingly impossible. Indeed, in most of the world a DVD store is a place where DVD’s are copied and distributed.

What I think is really needed is a brand spanking new business model for writers, directors, actors, and producers not to mention singers, songwriters, and musicians. I think the model needs to rely on writing, performing, and producing rather than having written, having performed, or having produced but what do I know?

5 comments… add one
  • PD Shaw

    I am sympathetic to the writers, but I think they are about to get crushed. There are two other industry trends. One is that the networks are increasingly owned by diversified corporations that are not dependent on TV revenues. The other is that these networks have diversified into cable. Of course the writers want a form of diversification too, but they don’t have it.

  • PD Shaw

    I also heard on TV this morning that the networks were having such a bad year with many of their new programs that a strike was in their interest. They anticipate using force majeure clauses to get out of completing those contracts. That would be an interesting application of force majeure.

  • There may be a new model coming, but it isn’t here today. As of right now the producers are raking in billions and giving the writers peanuts. So long as the production companies are actively collecting revenue they are in a position to share it with the people who create the product.

    Go WGA.

  • I’m not unsympathetic with the writers, Michael, and I’m certainly not particularly sympathetic with the producers. I just think that the royalty/residual system is running on fumes.

    When you have the situation that we have today when high quality digital copies of major motion pictures show up in China hours after (or even before) a film’s release, I think it’s pretty obvious that the end is nigh.

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