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Why does a Writer's Strike Affect Television Programming?

A writer's strike halts the heartbeat of television: the script. Without writers, new episodes can't be crafted, causing delays and reruns. This ripple effect impacts actors, crew, and viewers alike, underscoring the vital role writers play in the entertainment industry. Curious about the far-reaching consequences of a writer's strike? Dive deeper to uncover the intricate web of television production.
Tricia Christensen
Tricia Christensen
Tricia Christensen
Tricia Christensen

When writers who belong to the Writers Guild of America Union are unsatisfied with the terms of their contracts with television and motion picture studios, they can choose to initiate a writer's strike. This can be a disabling blow to the television and motion picture industry, because even a script that has already been written needs amendments and adjustments as a show is filmed. Without writers, this can’t be accomplished, forcing television shows to run out of episodes to film, and movies that are being filmed to halt production.

Such a writer's strike occurred in 2007, and mainly concerned the rights of writers to royalties from DVD sales of television series, rebroadcasts on the Internet, and podcasts. The emerging technology of these profitable markets, especially the jump in popularity of DVDs of series and downloadable episodes or films, prompted writers to demand greater compensation for sale of their work in other non-traditional markets. When this type of writer’s strike occurs, other unions, including unions outside of the entertainment industry, have to choose sides. Actor’s unions often strike with writers, while producers tend to be on the opposite side of the fence, since they are bargaining over profits to which they feel entitled.

In the case of a writers' strike, a television or film project may halt production.
In the case of a writers' strike, a television or film project may halt production.

If a writer's strike lasts long enough, it does have a negative effect on television programming. This may depend upon when the strike occurs and also how long it lasts. A strike lasting for several weeks during the fall or spring season means that most major shows are in production. They have filmed some of the scripts already written, but they may only be a week or two ahead in filming of the shows that are airing. Further, staff writers aren’t on hand for rewrites, which means any rewriting is done by people who don’t usually hold the job, which in turn can create lower quality scripts in the finished product. Normally, once a television show has run out of scripts, production on the show must end until the strike is resolved.

A strike's impact on a television program often depends on when the strike occurs and how long it lasts.
A strike's impact on a television program often depends on when the strike occurs and how long it lasts.

What this means in terms of television programming is that filming is delayed, new episodes are not forthcoming, and broadcast stations must choose to air reruns, perhaps much earlier than they planned. Some shows, with late starts, like those in January, can have production of their earliest episodes delayed and may decide to skip a season if a writer’s strike occurs in late fall or early winter of the previous year. Networks may also decide to air other pilots, or new shows they were saving for a later time or only considering airing. What tends to be important to networks is that fewer people watch reruns, which translates to less revenue from commercial ad placements. Advertising spots are worth as much when a network airs a rerun, and fan loyalty to shows can be lost if fans must wait a long time for a new episode of their favorite show.

Many television programs are scripted and cannot continue production without writers.
Many television programs are scripted and cannot continue production without writers.

It’s in the interest of all parties: writers, producers, directors, actors, and film crew to resolve a writer's strike as quickly as possible. Prolonged strikes dramatically alter television programming, lose money for networks, and keep actors, camera people, special effects teams, sound experts, directors and producers out of work. Costs to make up the time lost can be astronomical, and networks continue to make less money than expected while the writer's strike lasts.

Frequently Asked Questions

What is a writer's strike and why does it happen?

A writer's strike occurs when the members of a writers' guild or union collectively decide to stop working in order to negotiate better terms, such as higher wages, improved working conditions, or fairer distribution of profits. Strikes happen when negotiations between the writers and the producers or studios reach an impasse. The most recent major strike was the 2007-2008 Writers Guild of America strike, which lasted 100 days and had a significant impact on the television industry.

How does a writer's strike directly impact television programming?

Television programming is heavily reliant on writers for scripts, storylines, and dialogue. When writers strike, the production of new scripts halts, leading to delays in filming and ultimately causing disruptions in the scheduled airing of TV shows. This can result in reruns, unscripted reality shows, or talk shows taking the place of scripted content. According to the Los Angeles Times, the 2007-2008 strike led to a 22% drop in scripted shows during the fall season.

Can a writer's strike affect the quality of television shows?

Yes, a writer's strike can significantly affect the quality of television shows. Without professional writers, the narrative depth, character development, and dialogue quality can suffer. Shows may rush to complete scripts before a strike or resort to using non-union writers, which can lead to a noticeable drop in writing quality. Additionally, story arcs may be abruptly altered or left unresolved, diminishing the overall viewing experience.

What are the long-term effects of a writer's strike on the television industry?

The long-term effects of a writer's strike on the television industry can include financial losses, changes in viewer habits, and shifts in production strategies. For instance, the 2007-2008 strike cost the Los Angeles economy an estimated $2.5 billion, as reported by Variety. It also accelerated the shift towards reality TV and other forms of unscripted content, which are less dependent on scripted writers and can be cheaper to produce.

How do networks and streaming services adapt to a writer's strike?

Networks and streaming services adapt to a writer's strike by altering their programming schedules, increasing the production of reality shows, game shows, and other unscripted content that do not require union writers. They may also rely more heavily on international acquisitions, reruns, and previously completed but unaired content to fill gaps. Additionally, they might fast-track the development of animated series, which typically have longer production cycles and may not be immediately affected by a strike.

Tricia Christensen
Tricia Christensen

Tricia has a Literature degree from Sonoma State University and has been a frequent WiseTour contributor for many years. She is especially passionate about reading and writing, although her other interests include medicine, art, film, history, politics, ethics, and religion. Tricia lives in Northern California and is currently working on her first novel.

Learn more...
Tricia Christensen
Tricia Christensen

Tricia has a Literature degree from Sonoma State University and has been a frequent WiseTour contributor for many years. She is especially passionate about reading and writing, although her other interests include medicine, art, film, history, politics, ethics, and religion. Tricia lives in Northern California and is currently working on her first novel.

Learn more...

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    • In the case of a writers' strike, a television or film project may halt production.
      By: A_ya
      In the case of a writers' strike, a television or film project may halt production.
    • A strike's impact on a television program often depends on when the strike occurs and how long it lasts.
      By: DeshaCAM
      A strike's impact on a television program often depends on when the strike occurs and how long it lasts.
    • Many television programs are scripted and cannot continue production without writers.
      By: Joanna Zielinska
      Many television programs are scripted and cannot continue production without writers.