Hollywood writers begin strike, late-night shows go dark

Late-night TV shows including “The Tonight Show” and “The Daily Show” will begin airing reruns as unionized writers soured by Hollywood’s low pay in the streaming era went on strike Tuesday for the first time in 15 years

Updated - May 03, 2023 10:10 pm IST

Published - May 03, 2023 01:22 am IST - NEW YORK

The Writers Guild of America West offices are seen in Los Angeles. File.

The Writers Guild of America West offices are seen in Los Angeles. File. | Photo Credit: Reuters

Late-night TV shows including “The Tonight Show” and “The Daily Show” will begin airing reruns on May 2 as unionized screenwriters soured by diminished pay in the streaming era went on strike for the first time in 15 years.

Some 11,500 film and television writers represented by the Writers Guild of America put down their pens and laptops after failing to reach a new contract with the trade association that represents Hollywood studios and production companies.

The labour dispute could have a cascading effect on TV and film productions depending on how long the strike lasts, and it comes as streaming services are under growing pressure from Wall Street to show profits.

Late-night television was the first to feel the fallout, just as it was during the 2007 writers strike that last for 100 days.

All of the top late-night shows, which are staffed by writers that pen monologues and jokes for their hosts, immediately went dark. NBC’s “The Tonight Show,” Comedy Central’s “Daily Show,” ABC’s Jimmy Kimmel Live," CBS's “The Late Show” and NBC's “Late Night” all made plans for reruns through the week.

NBC didn't immediately comment on plans for “Saturday Night Live." The sketch show is scheduled to air a new episode Saturday hosted by Pete Davidson.

“Everyone including myself hope both sides reach a deal. But I also think that the writers’ demands are not unreasonable,” host Stephen Colbert said on Monday's “Late Show.”

“This nation owes so much to unions," Colbert said. "Unions are the reason we have weekends, and by extension why we have TGI Fridays.”

The strike's impact on scripted series and films will take longer to notice; those with finished scripts are permitted to continue shooting. During the 2007 strike, late-night hosts eventually returned to air and improvised their way through shows.

One late-night show won't go dark. Fox News' “Gutfeld!” with Greg Gutfeld will continue airing new episodes, Fox said Tuesday.

The writers' guild is seeking higher minimum pay, less thinly staffed writing rooms, shorter exclusive contracts and a reworking of residual pay — all conditions it says have been diminished in the content boom driven by streaming.

“The companies’ behavior has created a gig economy inside a union workforce,” the WGA said in a statement.

Picket lines were planned Tuesday in Los Angeles and New York, including outside the Manhattan building where NBCUniversal is holding an event for advertisers to its streaming service, Peacock.

In Los Angeles, writers plan to demonstrate outside the offices of Walt Disney Co., Netflix, Amazon, Universal, Warner Bros., Paramount, CBS and Sony.

The Alliance of Motion Picture and Television Producers, which represents studios and productions companies, said it presented an offer with “generous increases in compensation for writers as well as improvements in streaming residuals.”

The trade association said in a statement that it was prepared to improve its offer “but was unwilling to do so because of the magnitude of other proposals still on the table that the guild continues to insist upon."

A shutdown has been widely forecast for months. The writers last month voted overwhelming to authorize a strike, with 98% of membership in support. Writers say their pay isn't keeping pace with inflation, TV writer rooms have shrunk too much and the old calculus for how residuals are paid out needs to be redrawn.

Streaming has exploded the number of series and films that are annually made, meaning more jobs for writers. But writers say they’re making less than they used to while working under more strained conditions.

The guild is seeking more compensation for writers up front. That's because many of the payments writers have historically profited from on the back end — like syndication and international licensing — have been largely phased out by the onset of streaming.

More writers — roughly half — are being paid minimum rates, an increase of 16% over the last decade.

Hollywood's trade association said Monday that the primary sticking points to a deal revolved around so-called mini-rooms — the guild is seeking a minimum number of scribes per writer room — and the duration of employment contracts.

The guild has said more flexibility for writers is needed when they’re contracted for series that have tended to be shorter-lived than the once-standard 20-plus episode broadcast season.

Many studios and production companies are slashing spending. The Walt Disney Co. is eliminating 7,000 jobs. Warner Bros. Discovery is cutting costs to lessen its debt. Netflix has pumped the breaks on spending growth.

Films will take longer to be affected, and if a strike persisted through the summer, fall TV schedules could be upended. Meantime, not having writers available for rewrites can have a dramatic effect on quality.

The James Bond film “Quantum of Solace” was one of many films rushed into production during the 2007-2008 strike with what Daniel Craig called “the bare bones of a script.”

“There was me trying to rewrite scenes — and a writer I am not,” Craig later recounted.

With a walkout long expected, writers have rushed to get scripts in and studios have sought to prepare their pipelines to keep churning out content for at least the short term.

“We’re assuming the worst from a business perspective,” David Zaslav, chief executive of Warner Bros. Discovery, said last month. “We’ve got ourselves ready. We’ve had a lot of content that’s been produced.”

Overseas series could also fill some of the void. “We have a large base of upcoming shows and films from around the world,” Ted Sarandos, Netflix co-chief executive, said on the company’s earnings call in April.

Yet the WGA strike may only be the beginning. Contracts for both the Directors Guild of America and SAG-AFTRA, the actors union, expire in June. Some of the same issues around the business model of streaming will factor into those bargaining sessions. The DGA is set to begin negotiations with AMPTP on May 10.

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