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WGA writers strike 2007 Paramount

With Hollywood in Transition, Can the WGA Afford a Strike?

UPDATE (8 PM, March 25): WGA negotiators ask the membership to authorize a strike, after what a union email said were “an ‘unacceptable’ series of ‘noes,'” according to the Hollywood Reporter. It’s the first step toward calling a strike, but several other steps are needed before one takes place. Back to our regularly scheduled column. Hoo, boy.

ORIGINAL (5 PM, March 25) A decade after a debacle of a strike, Hollywood writers are back at the bargaining table amid talk of another foray onto the picket lines. I’m guessing, despite some union saber rattling, that a WGA strike won’t happen this time, though it’s not because many writers aren’t struggling amid Peak TV’s presumed bounties.

And that’s one of the great ironies of being a writer during the most remarkable creative run ever in television, an intensely writer-driven medium. Writers should be rolling in the dough. Instead, many are rolling in the dirt.

To be sure, the most successful show runners are doing great, banking millions of dollars and creating a cascade of memorable shows for a wide variety of outlets in traditional linear TV, premium cable and the new digital providers such as Netflix and Amazon.

All those outlets are trying to build audience loyalty with high-level entertainment, hoping to carry that loyalty into the digital era when their channel needs to be a must-have for every cord-cutting audience member out there.

Despite the spending on shows, the Writers Guild of America membership is feeling some real pain, which means something crazy like a strike can’t be completely discounted. It would create a mess if it did, even more than in 2007, just ahead of the country’s worst recession since the Depression. As it is, the production boom has been as much problem as panacea for some writers.

According to figures compiled by entertainment lawyer and blogger Jonathan Handel, the number of writers with TV credits has ballooned by a third since the strike year. But  income has been relatively flat, up just 6 percent in the same period.

FX Network boss John Landgraf has regularly inveighed against the economics of Peak TV, the recent explosion in TV production that saw more than 450 scripted shows produced last year. Landgraf has repeatedly argued that media companies can’t keep producing lots of expensive, compelling shows without serious financial consequences.

But lost in Landgraf’s concerns for his fellow media companies is a more complicated issue for the writers behind those scripted programs:  all those shows tend to have dramatically fewer episodes, down from about 19 per season in 2011 to just 13 three years later.

That means more development, pitching and set-up work to get those shows going, but not more money, because pay is based mostly on how many episodes you write a script for.

The WGA West released a two-season survey that found median incomes dropped 23 percent for some 2,000 working TV writer-producers between 2013-2014 and 2015-2016. And these numbers are for the most gainfully employed of TV writers.

Several factors can be blamed. While showrunners  can do very well, staff writers may not. They’re working shorter seasons, but contract provisions typically lock them in for any subsequent seasons also, with less money to tide them through longer stretches between seasons.  The result: Peak TV for writers is looking more like Piqued TV.

Even the film side isn’t doing well, in part because Hollywood is making fewer movies and in part because contract changes mean a script’s writer isn’t automatically paid for subsequent drafts and polishing. As a result, film screenwriters earned less in total in 2015 than they did in 1996.

The WGA contract negotiations are proceeding under a media blackout, but a few anonymously sourced tidbits have escaped: the opening day was “tense,” but since then, negotiations have been “cordial.”

Among the challenges to be addressed is that old faithful: a deficit-ridden health-care plan that will need higher payments from someone to get back in the black. The writers don’t want to be that “someone.”

Also of considerable interest is a fix to the cruddy and the now quaintly named New Media provisions the writers were stuck with when the 2007 strike finally ended.

The most likely outcome, under what’s known as pattern bargaining, is the union will get a deal similar to what the Directors Guild adopted in January. The DGA deal gave members three years of modest annual increases in base payments, and notably higher residuals from productions for the biggest digital outlets, such as Netflix and Hulu.

Thus, the most likely WGA deal will include, say, a 2.5- to 3-percent annual hike in base payments, some modest fix to the healthcare package and more money for writers who sell a show to Netflix.

If that’s not enough, though, a strike remains possible. But if it comes, a strike would hit Hollywood at an extremely ill-chosen time, just as the industry is ponderously shifting from linear and the pricey cable package to digital and build-your-own bundle.

If a strike happened, it likely would kill the most vulnerable channels on the rail. As happened in 2007, media companies would conserve resources by invoking force majeure contract provisions to end talent deals and even uncompetitive channels (that process has already begun, even without a strike).

Here’s hoping the writers, a dyspeptic lot in the best of times, can find their way to a reasonably happy yes on a deal. The last thing Hollywood needs during its transition to digital is a rerun of a very bad show from a decade ago.