5 Critical Lessons From The Last Hollywood Writers’ Strike

Members of the Writers Guild of America voted on Monday to authorize a strike if the negotiating committee does not reach a new deal with Hollywood studios before the current contract expires on May 1.

An overwhelming majority, 98%, voted for the strike, crystalizing the frustration among writers who feel that their deals have not evolved with the rise of digital options that have created more content than ever for viewers to enjoy.

If those who ignore history are doomed to repeat it, then both sides would be wise to look back at the last writers’ strike, which started in November 2007 and ended in February 2008, for lessons to help them navigate another, which is looking increasingly likely.

As Eric Tipton, a screenwriter who was part of a recent “From The Trenches: Working Writers in Conversation” Substack, notes, “Remembering what happened in 2007 is an important context for today. It seems to me that there is a sanitized mythology about the last strike spreading on social media.”

Here are five lessons the WGA and the studios can carry forward from the last strike.

1. Reality TV Can Be A Stopgap, But Labor Issues Loom

During the previous strike, reality TV became the MVP for networks, which turned to hits like The Amazing Race and Celebrity Apprentice to fill the airwaves left vacant by scripted series whose writers were on strike.

Expect that strategy to play out again but with an undercurrent of labor strife. Reality TV writers, who craft storylines and character arcs if not actual dialogue, have been trying to organize for years—since the last strike, really, when their concerns got the short shrift in early organizer concessions. The WGA has since been more welcoming, with reality producers getting more vocal about lack of health care and other concerns a union could assist with.

2. Big Tech Could Scramble The Outlook At The Table

Fifteen years ago, it would have seemed laughable for Amazon and Apple
to have any influence in the studio demands—but such is the current TV landscape. The 800-pound gorillas of the last round of negotiations, like CBS with Les Moonves, have dropped considerable weight, and deeper-pocketed tech firms may have different motivations in negotiations than the traditional studios. That wasn’t a factor in the last strike, so the newbies should be mindful of what happened before and try to gauge the universal impact of their moves vs. the immediate, short-term impact.

3. No One Really Knows What The Future Holds

The 20007-’08 strike is remembered as being about writers wanting a slice of the internet pie—but that’s 20/20 hindsight. In truth, that strike was as much about securing higher DVD residuals. Writers couldn’t anticipate then how streaming would revolutionize the TV business or what they could even want from something so tsunami-like. And no one can say with certainty what’s coming 15 years down the road now, either—which is why, as Chap Taylor notes in the Substack conversation, writers fought last time around for a piece of downloads rather than subscription income.

4. The Late-Night Voices Will Suddenly Carry More Heft

Let’s face it, late-night TV isn’t what it used to be. Ratings have been falling for years, and we’re decades past a time when Johnny Carson commanded a nation’s attention at 11:31 p.m. Still, the strike could bring about a renewed focus on nightly entertainment if, like the last time, the late-night shows become one of the first to come back in a prolonged strike. Headlines would focus on what these men (there’s one thing that hasn’t changed) had to say about current events as well as the strike—and it gave them renewed gravitas at a time when the genre sorely needed it.

And the genre could use the boost right now. The recent exit of Trevor Noah from Comedy Central’s The Daily Show, which has relied on a stable of rotating guest hosts since, and the upcoming departure of James Corden from CBS’s Late Late Show later this month leave only a handful of recognizable names in the late night space, and ratings have dwindled.

ABC’s Jimmy Kimmel and CBS’s Stephen Colbert (back then on Comedy Central) have already weathered one writers’ strike. When they, along with Jimmy Fallon on NBC, go dark, it will be interesting to see who comes back first (back in 2007, David Letterman’s company signed a separate deal with writers to get them back on air), who joins the picket lines, and who supports their staff while they’re off the air like Kimmel did in secret 15 years ago—remember, it’s not just the writers affected by these shutdowns.

5. Public Pressure Is A Critical Part Of Getting A Deal

The early part of the last strike fell fortuitously around the holidays, when network schedules were usually jumbled anyway, allowing the full impact of the strike to take a few months, until audiences realized their favorite shows weren’t producing any new content. Audience discontent (or worry about discontent) helped push studios to make a deal.

The big question is whether that will even happen again in an ecosystem where network and live television have become less significant. People now have so many choices that they could look at a few months off from new content as a blessing—maybe it’s time to finally watch Squid Game or the latest Marvel series on Disney+, or perhaps it’s time to rebinge Game of Thrones. The writers will see quickly which way the public leans, and it will benefit if there’s outcry over lack of original shows.

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