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Film and TV writers go on strike, bringing production on many shows to a halt

<i>WGA</i><br/>A photo posted on the Twitter account for the Writers Guild of America East mentions
A photo posted on the Twitter account for the Writers Guild of America East mentions "members have been hard at work at WGAE HQ in NYC these last few days!" on April 28.

By Chris Isidore and Juliana Liu, CNN

More than 11,000 members of the Writers Guild of America (WGA) are set to go on strike Tuesday morning for the first time since 2007, a move that could bring an immediate halt to the production of many television shows and possibly delay the start of new seasons of others later this year.

“Though we negotiated intent on making a fair deal … the studios’ responses to our proposals have been wholly insufficient, given the existential crisis writers are facing,” said a statement from the union leadership.

“They have closed the door on their labor force and opened the door to writing as an entirely freelance profession. No such deal could ever be contemplated by this membership.”

While union members would be on strike as of 3 am EDT Tuesday, the WGA tweeted that it would not set up picket lines until Tuesday afternoon.

The Alliance of Motion Pictures and Television Producers (AMPTP), which is negotiating on behalf of studio management, responded by saying it was willing to improve on its offer but was not willing to meet some of the union’s demands.

“The primary sticking points are ‘mandatory staffing,’ and ‘duration of employment’ — Guild proposals that would require a company to staff a show with a certain number of writers for a specified period of time, whether needed or not,” said the statement from management’s negotiating committee.

“Member companies remain united in their desire to reach a deal that is mutually beneficial to writers and the health and longevity of the industry, and to avoid hardship to the thousands of employees who depend upon the industry for their livelihoods.”

The distance between the two sides suggested this could be the start of a long strike. The last strike that started in November 2007 stretched 100 days into February of 2008. There were no talks scheduled Tuesday after the talks broke off more than three hours before the strike deadline Monday night, according AMPTP.

Many shows on cable and broadcast networks have already filmed their final episodes for the current season, but viewers could see an impact with late night shows, daytime soap operas and shows such as “Saturday Night Live,” which could have early ends to their seasons.

“Jimmy Kimmel Live!” and “The Late Show with Stephen Colbert” will begin airing repeat episodes on Tuesday due to the film and TV writers’ strike, sources close to the programs told CNN.

Show host Seth Meyers, who was on the picket line as a writer at SNL during the last strike, also prepared his viewers that Late Night with Seth Meyers won’t be on the air if there is a strike.

Financial pressure

The strike comes at a time when both sides say they are feeling financial pain.

The multi-employer contract is between the WGA and AMPTP, which represents Amazon, Apple, CBS, Disney, NBC Universal, Netflix, Paramount Global, Sony and CNN’s parent company, Warner Bros. Discovery. Many of those companies have seen drops in their stock price, prompting deep cost cutting, including layoffs.

But the writers, many of whom can’t support themselves with writing alone, are suffering from reduced job opportunities and the loss of some sources of income due to an industry shift from traditional broadcast and cable programming to streaming services.

The distance between the two sides includes a lot of complex rules and contract provisions that would make little sense to those not in the industry, but much of it comes down to money.

The Writers Guild put out a summary of the two sides’ bargaining positions in which it says the union’s proposals would gain writers as a group about $429 million per year; AMPTP’s offer is about $86 million per year. AMPTP questioned those estimates, pointing out that it’s hypothetical because it’s unknown how many movies and shows would be ordered or renewed over the three years of the contract.

While not all members of the WGA are currently working, the strike could soon idle thousands of other workers on the sets of shows and movies. The strike could have widespread implications for the industry, and for the economies of Southern California and some other locations, such as New York City.

There could be as many as 20,000 people working on as many as 600 productions who could be out of work if the writers shutdown production, according to an estimate from AMPTP.

The 2007 strike caused an estimated $2 billion in economic damage, mostly in Southern California. Adjusted for inflation, that comes to nearly $3 billion today.

Rise of streaming

The industry has changed radically in the 15 years since the last strike ended. Those changes have accelerated since the last round of negotiations in 2020 in the early weeks of the pandemic. The rise of streaming services changed the way audiences consume both television shows and movies, and studios adjusted their business models in an attempt to respond.

Many streaming shows have much shorter seasons, perhaps eight to 10 episodes, rather than more than 20 with traditional TV shows. Many shows also employ fewer writers than were on staff in the past. All of it means less opportunities for writers to work and earn money.

In addition, there is a big dispute as to how writers are paid. Writers have traditionally gotten residuals when a show they wrote is sold to run again in syndication or on basic cable. It’s been an important source of income for many writers over the years. But they’re unlikely to get meaningful residuals, if any at all, when they create original content for streaming services as contracts stand today.

With streaming services poised to become the future of television entertainment, the Guild was fighting in these negotiations for some kind of ongoing compensation from streaming services.

The hunger for content by those streaming service also means that it might not take as long for the strike to start to impact production schedules. Typically broadcast shows due to air with the start of the fall season would be on hiatus for the next couple of months. But productions take place on a more year-round basis today than in the past.

Although many streaming services are not yet profitable, they provide the studios with a source of income from subscribers’ monthly fees, making them less dependent on advertising revenue that might be lost from the need to air reruns on broadcast or cable channels.

Streaming services also have a massive stockpile of older content that could keep their customers satisfied, at least temporarily, while they await new shows.

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