Why TV writers are striking and what it means for your favorite shows

More than 11,000 members of the Writers Guild of America (WGA) went on strike against the television and movie studios after contract negotiations collapsed, triggering the first walkout in more than 15 years and halting production on some of the most popular shows in the United States.

The Association of Motion Picture and Television Producers (AMPTP), a trade association that works on behalf of Hollywood production companies, argued in a statement Tuesday that it offered “generous increases in compensation for writers.”

But WGA slammed the studios’ response to their complaints during the negotiations as “wholly insufficient given the existential crisis writers are facing.”

“The survival of writing as a profession is at stake in this negotiation,” the WGA said at the start of the contract talks.

Now that the strike is underway, how long could it last? And how will it change what you see on TV? Here’s what we know so far:

Writers vote to strike in move that could bring Hollywood to a halt

Why is there a writers’ strike? What are their complaints?

The Writers Guild of America will go on strike on May 2 for the first time in 15 years. Washington Post reporter Anne Branigin explains. (Video: The Washington Post)

The WGA and AMPTP spent months trying to renegotiate their 2020 contract, which expired Monday at midnight. The biggest issue was the guild’s push for higher writing compensation on streaming shows.

The WGA argues that the median pay for a writer-producer pay has declined by 23 percent in recent years when adjusted for inflation, that its members on the West Coast were paid less in 2021 than 2020, and that they have fewer job opportunities.

The guild also complained that writers’ livelihoods took a hit when tradition TV seasons of 20 or more episodes, gave way to much shorter seasons on service like Netflix, Hulu or Amazon, typically between eight and 12 episode.

They are also unhappy about studios’ use of “mini-rooms,” where lower-paid writers work to develop stories and write scripts before a show has been signed off on by a studio.

How a Hollywood writers’ strike can derail a great TV show

The studios counter-argue that now is not the time to overhaul pay structures, given a sluggish economy and struggles in the advertising market. Warner Bros. Discovery laid off thousands of employees last year and shelved many titles to help save costs, and Disney is in the middle of letting go of 7,000 workers.

The studio group said in a statement that it wants a deal that is “mutually beneficial to writers and the health and longevity of the industry, and [avoids] hardship to the thousands of employees who depend upon the industry for their livelihoods.”

Both sides continue to negotiate.

The most immediate shift is going to be on the late-night shows, which have shut down as a result of the strike and are expected to air reruns. The shows affected include NBC’s “The Tonight Show,” CBS’s “The Late Show with Stephen Colbert,” ABC’s “Jimmy Kimmel Live!,” NBC’s “Late Night with Seth Meyers” and Comedy Central’s “The Daily Show.”

Other weekly shows that will be similarly affected include NBC’s “Saturday Night Live,” which could nix this weekend’s episode featuring former cast member Pete Davidson as host.

HBO shows “Last Week Tonight with John Oliver” and “Real Time with Bill Maher” are also expected to shut down.

The strike isn’t expected to immediately affect streamers. Netflix co-CEO Ted Sarandos said last month that the service has “a pretty robust slate of releases to take us into a long time.”

Warner Bros. Discovery CEO David Zaslav recently said that HBO Max will release new content when the service is rebranded to Max on May 23.

“We are ready to go guns blazing in terms of our product and our platforms around the world,” he said.

But a prolonged stoppage could affect shows scheduled to come out at the end of this year.

What happened with the last writers’ strike in 2007-2008?

WGA members last went on strike in November 2007 amid breakdowns in negotiations surrounding writers’ salaries. The strike, which lasted 100 days and stretched into 2008, cost the economy of Los Angeles an estimated $2.1 billion, according to reports from the UCLA and the Milken Institute.

The strike also jammed up the production pipeline and left networks scrambling to fill empty hours of programming. Shows like “30 Rock,” “The Big Bang Theory” and “Friday Night Lights” all had shortened seasons. “24,” “Entourage” and “Rescue Me” postponed episodes. Roughly a dozen network shows were canceled because of the labor stoppage.

That strike also helped fuel the rise of reality shows such as “Big Brother,” “The Amazing Race” and “Celebrity Apprentice,” which filled the gap left by writerless scripted shows.

It also had less predictable effects on popular culture.

The AMC show “Breaking Bad” was in its first season when it was shortened from nine episodes to seven due to the strike. Showrunner Vince Gilligan has said that he had planned to kill off one of the show’s main characters — either Aaron Paul’s Jesse Pinkman or Dean Norris’s Hank Schrader — by episode nine.

“The whole shape of the show would have been so different from what you know now, and I think it would have been a much shorter, less rich experience,” Gilligan told Esquire in 2018.

Shows responded in their own ways to the strike. Ratings went up for “The Daily Show” and “The Colbert Report” when they returned to the air without writers. Conan O’Brien filled airtime through a number of writerless bits, including one in which he spun his wedding ring on his desk.

“The Office” had to stop production after actor Steve Carell refused to cross the picket lines and faked being sick to avoid coming in.

How long could this strike last?

It’s unclear how long the strike could last. The longest writers’ strike went on for 153 days in 1988, while the 1960 work stoppage stretched on for 146 days, and the 2007 strike lasted 100.

Writers plan to start picketing outside of 10 major studios in Los Angeles and Peacock’s NewFront event in New York on Tuesday afternoon and Netflix’s Manhattan headquarters on Wednesday.

But as WGA members indicated before the strike went into effect, writers appear prepared to hold out until Hollywood meets their labor demands. Danielle Sanchez-Witzel, a comedy writer and producer for “The Carmichael Show” and a member of the WGA’s negotiating committee, said in an April 11 video message that “this is not an ordinary negotiating cycle.”

“Here is what all writers know: The companies have broken this business. They have taken so much from the very people, the writers, who have made them wealthy,” the WGA negotiating committee wrote in a Monday letter. “But what they cannot take from us is each other, our solidarity, our mutual commitment to save ourselves and this profession that we love. We had hoped to do this through reasonable conversation. Now we will do it through struggle.

“For the sake of our present and our future, we have been given no other choice.”

What are celebrities saying about the strike?

While the strike caught a lot of people by surprise, celebrities at Monday night’s Met Gala were clearly worried as they walked the red carpet.

“Abbott Elementary” actress Quinta Brunson said she hoped the strike wouldn’t happen and a deal could be struck. “People strike for a reason,” actor Bryan Tyree Henry told Variety. Director and actress Olivia Wilde said the strike would impact everyone inside and outside the industry, adding that “we need to stand up for our rights.”

Actress Amanda Seyfried said that “everything changed with streaming and everyone should be compensated for their work.”

And Jimmy Fallon, host of “The Tonight Show,” confirmed his show would “go dark” if the strike went through. But, as a writer himself, he supports the end goal.

“I wouldn’t have a show without my writers. I support them all the way,” he said. “I couldn’t do the show without them and I support my whole staff.”

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