A Massive Writer’s Strike is Looming Over Hollywood

Enjoy your favorite scripted and late night shows while you can. If negotiations this week between the Writer’s Guild of America West (WGAW) and the Alliance of Motion Picture and Television Producers (AMPTP) fail, Hollywood could see its first crippling writer’s strike in almost a decade.

The organization threatening the strike, The Writer’s Guild of America, is a labor union representing all types of media writers, from television to radio to film. The national organization has two divisions: Writer’s Guild of America East, representing TV and film writers east of the Mississippi; and West, representing Hollywood and Southern California.

WGAW has over 20,000 members with different levels of membership depending on the writer’s employment. The guild also allows unemployed writers to remain as members, which maintains membership perks like health care coverage.

WGAW’s ten-year contract with the AMPTP, a trade association representing studios, expires on May 1. The praxis of the strike is, as usual, money—data shows that while profits among major television and film studios are rising, the average salary for television writers is falling. Additionally, the WGAW provides health insurance coverage, which is critical for unemployed writers.  This coverage has been in financial crisis, and the guild wants higher contributions from employing studios, who have plenty of funds, to help stabilize it.

Decreases in median earnings for almost all WGA TV writers; chart via Stephen Follows

Another key part of the Guild’s demands are the exclusivity rules that television writers must comply to. Currently, writers hired for a TV show are held exclusively to that show, even when they’re not writing—also called being in “first position.” During production of the show, writers have no work and have to wait to see if the show gets renewed for another season, which can take up to a year. Even then, writers can’t move to another show, and that second show might be reluctant to hire a writer who is primarily obligated somewhere else.

While these exclusivity rules didn’t affect writers as much when shows produced around 22 episodes per season, more shows are moving to a model that includes only about 13 episodes a season. Considering the issues caused by exclusivity, the Guild is asking for a reduction in the severity of these rules.

The last strike held by the WAGW started in November 2007 and lasted approximately fourteen weeks, costing the economy of Los Angeles about $380 million. The strike also caused several movies like “The Rise of Cobra” or “X-Men: Wolverine” to rush into production with sloppily edited or half-written scripts because of the lack of available writers.

While the 2007 strike ended in the writers gaining one of their main concessions – a share of digital streaming revenue from studios – it also hurt writers in the short run. Studios broke existing contracts with writers, cutting development deals that would have provided writers with lucrative stipends to come up with new shows.

John Rogers, a TV blogger, tweeted that the current negotiations are simply “cleaning up the chaos of the new media environment” and cited script parity as one of the issues needing clarification. Script parity, as identified by Rogers, is when writers are paid less for certain distribution systems than others, despite ratings numbers, so that a network writer is paid more than a cable writer.

If the strike were to happen, television’s late-night comedy would revert to reruns almost instantly. While summer reality shows like “Big Brother” would still arrive on time since those writer-producer teams operate on different contracts, some fall debuts would likely be delayed.

Larger consequences, especially for massive television networks, include a further shift towards streaming services like Netflix and Amazon. Networks have already been losing popularity in favor of these services, and missing scripts because of a writer’s strike could be a harmful blow. Additionally, streaming services have scripted releases ready to go; Netflix, for example, has new seasons of “Orange is the New Black,” “Master of None,” and “Stranger Things” coming in the next few months that have already been written.

Film, on the other hand, may not be as negatively affected, depending on how long the potential strike lasts. Summer releases would occur on time, but fall films may go into production with unfinished scripts.

Currently, the Guild is hosting a vote in which members can choose whether or not to authorize a strike. The Hollywood Reporter discloses that there has been at least one “yes” vote to hold the strike, and WGA West President Howard Rodman has been publicly supportive of calling the strike.

The vote totals – and the decision whether or not to hold the strike – will be announced tonight, April 24. If the decision is no, it is likely that the WAGW will try to go back to the negotiating table. But, if the WAGW makes the decision to strike, Hollywood could see big changes – and a lot of uncertainty – for the rest of the year.

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