Less than a month before WGA’s current contract with AMPTP expires, there is still a sense of relative calm among TV networks and studios. The subject only recently started coming up in staff meetings, and we are not seeing the frantic stockpiling of scripts we witnessed in 2007 in the run-up to the 100-day writers strike.
Some of it has to do with the timing of a potential work stoppage. In 2007, the strike came in early November, when production on about 150 broadcast drama and comedy series was in full force. With the broadcast season’s beginning and end set in stone and billions of ad revenue at stake, the networks and studios rushed to bank extra episodes before the writers put their pencils down.
This time, a strike would fall during the broadcast series’ hiatus (and during the networks’ upfront presentation in New York where they will present their fall lineups to advertisers). Additionally, only a portion of the series have been renewed, with the fate of the rest up in the air, making prepping episodes for next season a dicey proposition. Having just wrapped current seasons, writers are off, so even the series with early renewals are not working on scripts for next season. There has been chatter that some daytime soaps may have been accumulating extra scripts in the face of a potential strike; because of their year-round production cycle and daily airings, daytime dramas, along with late-night programs, are the first affected by a walkout.
Because of scheduling reasons, Fox banked the last four episodes of the current second season of Lucifer for next season, on top of its 22-episode Season 4 order. Additionally, NCIS: Los Angeles for the past few years has been staying in production longer to film a few episodes for the fall and return to work later than normal in the summer. Both series will have episodes ready for the fall — but none for reasons related to the potential strike. For the vast majority of broadcast series, a possible writers walkout could lead to delays in production starts, but the impact is not expected to be be as profound as it was in 2007-2008 if the work stoppage begins soon after May 1 when the current WGA-AMPTP contract expires.
Of course, the overall impact of a strike is expected to be as profound on the TV industry as it was the last time, affecting writers, below-the-line personnel and craft services. Scribes would lose their overall deals as TV studios would likely use the strike as an opportunity to trim rosters.
While broadcast will be on hiatus except for a couple of summer scripted series, including CBS’ Salavation and Zoo and ABC’s Somewhere Between, there will be a slew of cable and digital series in production in May that would be affected by a potential strike. The list includes CBS All Access’ Star Trek: Discovery, FX’s American Horror Story, some of Netflix’s Marvel dramas and comedy One Day At A Time, and HBO’s Divorce, among others. However, cable and streaming networks are not under the same time constraints when to premiere their series, so modest delays will not be crucial.
As the WGA and AMPTP gear up for a second round of negotiations, observers peg strike odds at 50-50 or even 60-40 in favor of avoiding a work stoppage.
“I don’t feel there are galvanizing issues on either side this time,” one industry observer said, pointing to the 2007 rallying cry for writers to strike so they don’t miss out on fair compensation for digital rights to their work after being underpaid for DVD releases.
While the two sides are still pretty far apart, they have agreed on a new bargaining session to begin April 10. To strengthen its position, the WGA leadership has been releasing scores of data that supports their demands addressing the declines in cable series pay where writers work longer on fewer episodes than their broadcast counterparts and are under exclusive holds that prevent them from getting other work, thus jeopardizing their ability to meet the minimums required for health coverage. The WGA’s health plan, which is facing a major shortfall, is another big issue on the table.
The WGA negotiating committee hopes to have ammunition in their negotiations with the studios in the form of a looming strike-authorization vote which will be conducted April 18-19, undoubtedly giving the talks a sense of urgency.
However, while one of the top items on the agenda (lower pay for shorter seasons) involves non-broadcast series, AMPTP most fully represents broadcast networks and studios because they once accounted for the vast majority of the TV business. Per the collective bargaining representative’s website, AMPTP’s member companies include “production entities of the studios, broadcast networks, certain cable networks and independent producers.” With the explosion of original scripted content on cable and digital, the broadcast networks now air about quarter of all scripted series. Meanwhile, the new heavyweight, Netflix, which carries more original scripted series than any other network, is not even a member of the AMPTP.
Some insiders wonder if a global company like Netflix, which has a different business model than traditional networks, doesn’t disclose ratings information and can produce series anywhere in the world, would have an incentive to comply with WGA demands, which also include increase in residuals from SVOD play.
Also, with the ongoing consolidation in the business, film and TV production/distribution units represent smaller part of big conglomerates with less weight and importance than when the previous writers strike was held. That includes NBCUniversal, now owned by Comcast, and Warner Bros, which is readying itself for an acquisition by AT&T.
The first bargaining session between the WGA and AMPTP last month involved the companies’ labor attorneys, who led the negotiations. While the media congloms’ CEOs are being briefed regularly on the progress, they have yet to step in and become involved like a decade ago. While Peter Chernin is no longer at Fox, and Barry Meyer is gone from Warner Bros, two other key mogul players who played a part in settling the 2007 strike — CBS’ Les Moonves and Disney’s Bob Iger — are still in charge. Also still around are entertainment agents and attorneys who helped facilitate back-channel negotiations during the last strike, and at least some are expected to get involved again should the need arises: WME’s Rick Rosen, UTA’s Jim Berkus, CAA’s Bryan Lourd and ICM Partners’ Chris Silbermann as well as attorneys Ken Ziffren and Craig Jacobson.
One factor that is not around this time is the DGA. In 2007, the directors waited for the WGA to negotiate their contract first. Weeks into the writers strike, with no end in sight, the DGA moved in to quickly negotiate a deal with the studios that served as a template for the WGA, with the writers union reaching its own agreement soon thereafter. This time, the DGA completed negotiations for a new contract well ahead of the WGA.
Observers fear that if writers walk out this time, “they won’t find an easy way out, and a strike could go on for a really long time.”