On Monday, film and TV writers took the next step toward walking off sets all over the country — a move with big consequences for the entertainment industry. The Writers Guild of America (WGA) voted by a margin of 96 percent to authorize a strike. The numbers were first reported by Variety.
In all, 6,310 ballots were cast, and 67.5 percent of eligible WGA membership voted. Those numbers are actually slightly higher than those of the guild’s 2007 vote to authorize a strike, when 90 percent of the vote was in favor of a strike with 5,507 ballots cast. That number was seen as a massive turnout for the WGA, so the comparatively better 2017 numbers will likely be viewed the same as the WGA and Alliance of Motion Picture and Television Producers (AMPTP) return to the negotiation table.
Talks between the two organizations are set to resume on Tuesday, less than a week before the WGA’s contract with the AMPTP expires on May 1. If the talks don’t succeed, WGA members will likely stop work starting May 2. In the past, WGA strikes have lasted anywhere from two to 22 weeks, and have had far-reaching effects on TV and film.
“The companies are committed to reaching a deal at the bargaining table that keeps the industry working. The 2007 Writers Strike hurt everyone. Writers lost more than $287 million in compensation that was never recovered, deals were cancelled, and many writers took out strike loans to make ends meet. We remain focused on our objective of reaching a deal with the WGA at the bargaining table when the guild returns on April 25th,” the AMPTP said in a statement.
There are two major reasons for the strike. First, studio profits have been rising over the past few years, particularly in TV — but many writers (especially those who earn middle-class wages) have seen their compensation go down, in some cases rather sharply. So the union wants the studios to raise wages.
Second, the WGA’s pension and health plans are on the verge of imploding, and the union wants studios to contribute more to those plans.
Under the strike, all members of the WGA will cease writing and producing on AMPTP projects (and the guild has promised that the strike, if authorized and if no agreement is reached, will commence May 2). This has especially far-reaching implications in the TV industry, where writers are often in charge, serving as producers and directors as well as writers.
In film, writers are usually less involved with the final product, and the film industry is typically less affected by strikes, since many completed screenplays exist already. However, many films rushed into production before the 2007 strike, resulting in movies that were shot without finished screenplays, such as the second Transformers film.
Some TV series and films with completed scripts will likely continue shooting, but writers will stop work on in-progress scripts and are supposed to step away from production duties. Depending on the strike’s duration, some shows may be forced to end their seasons early, the summer TV season could be affected, and, if it lasts long enough, the fall TV season could see repercussions as well — all of which can hurt ad buyers and networks. If networks can’t promise full seasons of upcoming shows to ad buyers, their ad revenues will likely be reduced — an especially big deal given that TV networks managed to garner more than $9 billion in ad sales last year.
And if broadcast TV is forced to air reruns — especially in a time when virtually every show is available digitally somewhere — their attractiveness to advertisers will go down. (Streaming services like Netflix and Amazon, which have a back catalog of shows available to them and are less dependent on new releases and advertisers for revenue, would likely see fewer effects than broadcast TV.)
Additionally, late-night shows such as Saturday Night Live and The Tonight Show — which generate new scripts on a daily or weekly basis — could go dark for the duration of the strike, and start their summer recess early if the strike lasts long enough. On April 15, SNL, which is riding a wave of boosted ratings due to renewed interest in political satire, is airing live on both coasts (instead of live on the East Coast and taped on the West Coast) for the last four episodes of the season; the strike could knock out its final three episodes entirely.
A strike would also affect ordinary people who work in the entertainment industry, many of whom struggle financially even when they’re working, or who are comfortable but not affluent. Striking writers would go unpaid for the duration of the strike, and shows that stop production may be forced to lay off their production staff, which can include everyone from camera operators and art directors to interns and production assistants. And members of other entertainment unions historically tend to support union strikes and may also be reticent to cross picket lines, further complicating the strike.
How long the possible 2017 strike lasts would depend on a number of factors, including how much each side is willing to compromise to avoid loss in revenues and income. With the strike authorized, though, it’s clear that the WGA is willing to go to bat for their demands. How much the studios are willing to give remains to be seen.