This one is different.
There are similarities, to be sure. A writer picketing outside a studio during the 2007 writers’ strike sported a placard with the words, etched in uneven, hand-written black felt lettering, “I’d rather be writing.”
But of course. Writers would always rather be writing, especially if a paycheck is involved. No-brainer.
Another similarity: The issue then, as now, is residuals. Residuals are the lifeblood of Hollywood’s creative artists: They are quite literally what feeds their families and keeps their kids in good schools.
Yet another similarity: The Writers Guild of America, not exactly the most radical of Hollywood unions, is once again acting as the vanguard for the entire Hollywood union movement. It’s not just writers who stand to lose, but also writers, directors and, especially, actors. Years back, one of the original stars of Law & Order told me he got “just $50” every time one of his Law & Order episodes was repeated on A&E, which seemed at the time to be every night of the week. He thought that sum outrageously low — “Just try feeding a family of four on $50” — especially considering how much work he put into Law & Order, not to mention the constantly rising cost of living.
He’d be lucky to earn half that now, as repeats are no longer in demand the way they once were and the bottom has fallen out of the syndication market. Law & Order isn’t airing on A&E anymore, in any event; today’s rerun series-of-choice appear to be Criminal Minds and, judging from the late-late-night programming schedule at AMC, CSI: Miami and Three Stooges shorts.
Here’s the big difference, though, and the reason a writers’ strike — which could take effect as early as May 1 — could signal a tectonic shift in the way the entire industry is bound together: Advancing technology.
The way we consume TV and, increasingly, films, means there may be no such thing as residuals in the not-too-distant future. Streaming is rapidly replacing broadcasting. Appointment television is going the way of black-and-white and silent movies; hardly anyone under the age of 50 is hooked up to an expensive cable package anymore. (I’m in the minority: I’m wedded to my cable package. As scuzzy as the cable operators are, I don’t trust the Internet service providers for a second to provide a decent, reliable wifi signal at a reasonable price, never mind a consistent HD signal that doesn’t look as if it was beamed from the rings of Saturn.)
The streaming companies — yes, Netflix again, but also Amazon and Hulu — are reluctant to say how many viewers watch old episodes of TV shows, like Law & Order, they have in their library. They’re even reluctant to say how many viewers are watching Netflix at any given moment.
They will tell you that, because their business model is subscription-based, not advertiser-driven, they can’t monetize repeat viewing anyway, so why would they pay residuals —any residuals — to a disaffected, grumbling actor from Law & Order?
The studios will argue — in fact, they already have argued — that an actor/writer/director gets an upfront fee for working on a TV series, for which they’re paid for each episode. An actor or writer, who works 20 episodes of a 22-episode series, is paid for 20 episodes, in other words.
And that’s a problem because now most series — especially the prestige cable dramas like Better Call Saul and even network series like American Crime and This Is Us – are making fewer episodes, anywhere from 10 to 13.
This Is Us, which most viewers can be forgiven for thinking ran a full 22-episode season — a season used to be 26 episodes, and then 24 — actually ran just 18.
The writers feel they’re being squeezed from both directions, in other words. Fewer episodes are being made up front, which means a smaller payoff during production, and residuals are disappearing, where they haven’t vanished altogether, on the back end.
The studios and streaming services argue they aren’t making any money off repeats anymore on the back end, and they’ll be darned if they pay writers — or anyone else — a percentage of money they claim they’re not making.
The writers, meanwhile, argue that while the cost of living keeps going up, they’re taking home less and less money, all the while providing the creative inspiration for the new platinum age of television. Fargo, The Americans, Better Call Saul, This Is Us, Game of Thrones — TV has never seen anything like it, and yet, the writers say, the creative artists who make those shows are being rooked.
There’s another huge difference between this writers’ strike and the one in 2007: Timing.
The upfronts — that time of year when the broadcast networks unveil their fall schedules, greenlight new series, and commit to returning projects – is now just weeks away. Production on new and returning series begins in earnest in mid-July, around the time the Television Critics Association gathers for its summer press tour. An ill-timed strike could throw a wrecking ball through the entire fall season, with ramifications for months and possibly even years after that, no matter how quickly it’s settled.
The studios and major broadcast networks are putting on a brave face. From their point-of-view, it’s business as usual, and why wouldn’t it be until the death hammer actually comes down? Behind the scenes, though, they’re frantically stockpiling scripts (work faster, you lazy bum writers) and making dark threats about hiring writers from Canada or Azerbaijan or something. That may sound like a stretch, but my hometown of Vancouver owes a large part of its film and TV production industry to a writers’ strike decades ago, when the late Stephen J. Cannell — sarcastically dubbed “the Canadian” by his more annoyed American writer colleagues — fled north and established a fully working film studio so he could create and produce series like 21 Jump Street, Wiseguy and The Commish outside the orbit of the Hollywood studios, far removed from the effects of any labor trouble in southern California. (Vancouver’s North Shore Studios, which Cannell was instrumental in creating, would go on to be the home of The X-Files and other series. That’s how Vancouver came by its nickname “Hollywood North.” Now you know.)
What this goes to show is that, once a strike is called, hardly anyone can predict how it will turn out in the end.
There still may not be a strike, but all the signs — right now, as of this very moment — point in that direction.
And it could be a bitter, protracted dispute, unlike the one in 2007, which, for all the disruption it caused at the time, had few long-lasting effects, unless it was to kick the proverbial football down the field, to be decided at a later time.
Residuals remain the outstanding issue, but the difference now is that both sides in the dispute face a lose-lose proposition, with no winners in sight unless both sides begrudgingly accept the status quo and face up to the fact that everyone, the studios and creative artists alike, will be taking home less money, because the way the streaming services’ business model works, there’s no money to be had, save what subscribers are willing to pay for their monthly fix of Stranger Things and Orange is the New Black.
The writers say their issues could be resolved if their first-time per-episode fee is raised; the studios are reluctant to pay more up front because they say there’s no money coming in on the back end, at least not the way it was just ten years ago.
Hollywood practically invented the term “creative bookkeeping,” so while the studios say they have no extra money to give the writers, the union points to steadily rising profits at the major studios. In 2016, the Alliance of Motion Picture and Television Producers — a fancy name for the Hollywood studios — reported $51 billion in profits, according to published reports, double their profits from 2007, when the writers last went on strike.
The situation as it stands right now is this: Talks between the Writers Guild and the studio alliance have been suspended until Tuesday, while union members take an industry-wide strike vote. The last of three in-person strike votes was taken earlier this week; online voting continues through Monday. If a strike mandate is approved — as seems likely — writers could be on strike as soon as the following week, when the current contract expires.
A strike, if it happens, would be the sixth writers’ strike in Hollywood history. As divisive as the issues are, and as intractable as the two positions seem, that’s one rerun dedicated TV viewers could do without.