A Breakdown of the Potential WGA Strike (and How It Could Affect You)

By  · Published on April 19th, 2017

The plain English version.

If you have frequented the film and television minded corners of the Interwebs in the past month or so, you might have heard about a potential Writers Guild of America (WGA) strike looming on the horizon. However, you might not have clicked on those headlines because they are incredibly dull, or quickly closed the tab after wading through a few lines of industry jargon-ese. I certainly did until I was preparing to write this article, because I am a millennial, and therefore have the attention span of a goldfish and the constitution of a snowflake.

Anyway, here’s a very basic breakdown of the current situation:

So, you’ve got the Writers Guild of America (WGA), which is exactly what it says on the tin, and the Alliance of Motion Picture and Television Producers (AMPTP), which is “the entertainment industry’s official collective bargaining representative” – aka the voice of The Studios (no relation to the AMPAS, who are the people who bring you the Oscars). The WGA has a three-year contract with the AMPTP that was drawn up three years ago, meaning that the two parties need to meet up and work something out before the clock strikes midnight on May 1 and everything goes to shit, like a much duller version of Cinderella with a lot more at stake. However, very much unlike Cinderella, the two parties involved in this tale actually have a long relationship history. Not all of it is pleasant.

While some of the key aspects of this new WGA-AMPTP deal (residuals and basic wage increases) are pretty much already set due the phenomenon of “pattern bargaining” and the fact that the Directors Guild of America (DGA) renewed its own contract with the AMPTP last December, the WGA still has a lot of concerns. As you probably know if you’ve watched much TV at all these past three years, a lot has changed. Viewers have a lot more options to choose from, but seasons are shorter, come and go seemingly whenever they please (as opposed to, you know, fall and spring, respectively), and cable is mostly for stragglers who haven’t switched to watching HBO via HBOGo yet. However, this switch to so-called “short-order” series (six to thirteen episodes) has become a major issue, especially for “low and mid-level” writers (higher ranking writers earn special fees “negotiated through their talent reps”). As opposed to the traditional 22-episode model, short-order series writers find themselves having fewer episodes to write, and often over longer time periods; that cinematic look we are coming to expect from our TV shows costs both money and extra production time. Once you figure in contract exclusivity terms, this results in lower salaries for writers. Meanwhile, the WGA’s healthcare and pension plans are also in need of reboots.

The first attempt at negotiation between the two parties began on March 13. From the coverage, it seems to have gone a little something like this:

INT. AMPTP’s Sherman Oaks Office – DAY

WGA: You don’t appreciate all the things I do for you.

AMPTP: What? Of course I do!

WGA: Then prove it. [Lists demands.]

AMPTP: How about… no.

End scene.

Negotiations broke down by March 23, and statements from both sides quickly disintegrated into finger pointing over who left the negotiating table first.

As someone in possession of a sibling, I can’t help but think of the many “did not!”/“did too!” debates I was involved in when I was knee-high to a grasshopper. As it turns out, some things never truly change, even when you involve much larger vocabularies and complex sentence structures.

On March 24, the WGA Negotiating Committee voted unanimously to recommend conducting a strike authorization vote, and sent out an email listing their reasons why.

On March 29, the WGA said it was ready to resume talks “whenever the AMPTP was ready and invites us back.” The AMPTP sent a formal invitation the following day. The WGA formally accepted and sent out save-the-dates for April 10.

Tension continued to rise over the course of the hiatus. On April 2, the WGA released a tidal wave of data in support of its bargaining position, including an unfortunate prognosis for its sickly healthcare plan. Effectively, the guild estimates the plan has about three years left before it succumbs (“basically broke and with less than two months of reserves by the end of 2020”).

The AMPTP released a statement the following day; the WGA followed up by setting a date for the strike authorization vote – April 18–19. (Most sources believe the vote will go through).

Negotiations resumed on April 10 as planned, then recessed for Good Friday (because they’re not heathens or something, idk). Negotiations continued on Monday, but concluded with a one line statement: “The WGA and the AMPTP have agreed to resume negotiations on Tuesday, April 25, 2017.” In other words, To Be Continued… (but yeah, no, it doesn’t look good).

And no matter how any of this works out – or, you know, doesn’t – the AMPTP contract with SAG-AFTRA, which represents actors and other performers and is already on strike against certain video game companies to protest unfair compensation and working conditions of voice actors and motion capture performers, is set to expire on June 30. So they’ve got that to look forward to.

Anyway, on to the part you actually care about: how it affects you (let’s be honest here). We just published an article yesterday about how the strike affected movies, but survey says it was TV that really felt the burn of 2007’s 100-day WGA strike. Maybe you remember the shitty 2007–2008 TV season, or maybe you didn’t notice. Or perhaps you really like reality TV, in which case it was kind of a jackpot for you. I, for one, was all of 10 years old for the last WGA strike, and mostly watched reruns and movies from Blockbusters anyway. However, Vanity Fair assures me that the strike “[brought] the entertainment industry to its knees,” with the most notable fatality being the 65th Golden Globe Awards ceremony. [Which, actually now that I look it up, is a lot sadder than I anticipated. Damn, 2007 was a good year for movies.]

As mentioned earlier, the world is different now. One would assume the stakes are different, too. Depending on who you ask, they will tell you they are either much higher or much lower. One thing that would be consistent with 2007, though, is that scripted TV would definitely be hit the hardest (on the flip side, unscripted reality TV and Canada would likely benefit).

Really, the entire notion of “Peak TV” – the term given to describe the “explosion in scripted originals” that has happened in the past few years – is at stake. In 2016, a record-breaking 455 original scripted series were released (including broadcast, cable, and streaming sources), up 71% from just five years earlier. Research was pointing to the continuation of this upward trajectory, but a WGA strike – particularly one that drags out— could put a stop to that. After all, what happens to a scripted content boom if people aren’t writing scripts? Many imagine the same thing that happens when you take a soufflé out of the oven too soon.

But then again, maybe not.

Some have argued that the surplus of available content might potentially limit the effects of a WGA strike – at least, as far as scripted narrative content goes. The whole notion of first run vs. rerun doesn’t work quite the same when everything is dumped together and you just sort of dive in and pick out what you want. An unusually high number of reruns going in primetime slots just won’t have the same sort of impact it once did, even when compared to a mere decade ago. Also, while there are still some mark-the-date-and-wait shows (I’m talking about you, Game of Thrones), there’s also quite a bit of, “oh hey, I didn’t realize a new season of that came out. Nice!” Besides, most of us have enough responsibilities in Real Life to have accumulated at least something of a “Shows I Will Eventually Get Around to Watching Someday” list – in the absence of new content, “eventually” might actually come true for once. And even for those shows you are awaiting, year or multiple year-long hiatuses have gone from being cruel and unusual punishment to cruel fact of life – regardless of whether the cause is difficulty finding a time when the schedules of multiple high-demand actors coincide or a WGA strike. When you take all these factors into consideration, what you get is a possibility that IndieWire put quite eloquently: “What if they striked and no one noticed?”

How Stewart, Conan, and Colbert handled empty writers’ rooms back in 2008

That said, one area where a WGA strike would definitely be felt is late night talkshows, and, considering the up-to-the-minute nature of their content, it would be felt pretty immediately. The last time ’round, hosts got quite creative. David Letterman managed to strike an interim deal with the WGA via his independent production company Worldwide Pants, but most others were forced to return to air writer-less in order to prevent layoffs of non-writing staff. One particularly memorable product of this interesting period of late night history is the Stephen Colbert/John Stewart/Conan O’Brien “Who Made Huckabee?” pseudo-feud which lasted January – February 2008, but will live on forever in our hearts.

Hopefully a WGA strike won’t happen, but if it does… how does Stephen Colbert vs. John Oliver vs. Samantha Bee sound?

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Ciara Wardlow is a human being who writes about movies and other things. Sometimes she tries to be funny on Twitter.