It’s entirely possible that the Writer’s Guild of America strike that has halted production of every TV show and most movies will be over by the time you read this. But few predicted that it would go on this long.
Before last week, there hadn’t been a single new late night show since Halloween, and it’s unlikely that you’ll see a new episode of your favorite scripted show until a good two to three months after this whole fiasco ends. Though the lengthy production schedules for movies have allowed multiplexes to operate normally thus far, the number of films will slowly start to wither until about a year from now when you’ll see little or no new movies at all.
The writers are completely justified in their strike. Far from the high-rolling stereotype that normal Americans perceive everyone in show business to be, writers almost without exception live the same middle class life as your average office worker.
They have always gotten the short end of the stick from the studio bosses, who pay them poorly and often don’t even credit them for their work despite the fact that every project springs from their original ideas.
All the coverage I’ve read or watched of the strike makes the negotiations seem like they’re too complicated for people to understand when they really couldn’t be simpler. Writers want 1% of the ad revenue from shows being watched online or downloaded from iTunes. That’s it.
They wanted 1% of DVD sales too, but they gave up on that before the strike started. That means that people like Disney’s Bob Iger ($12 million last year), Fox’s Peter Chernin ($34 million last year) and CBS’s Les Moonves ($52 million last year) are literally paying nothing to the person who created the show you just downloaded for $2, and all they’re asking for is two pennies.
When the talk shows finally came back last week I thought proud WGA members David Letterman and Conan O’Brien would become brazen insurgents, using the networks’ own airwaves to attack them for their petty greed and arrogance. But they took far different, and ultimately more successful, approaches.
Letterman produces his own show and was able to independently agree to the writers’ demands, so he has his regular writing staff. Far from ignoring the issues, though, Letterman made his entrance after the long break through a Busby Berkeley-esque team of dancing girls holding WGA picket signs sporting a shocking beard grown in solidarity with his striking compatriots (he says he’ll shave it off sometime this week because, frankly, it’s frightening).
O’Brien, on the other hand, has largely returned with a one-man show. His first episode back was one of the strangest and most unfiltered broadcasts I’ve ever seen on national television, as a visibly nervous O’Brien – voice cracking and hands slightly shaking – voiced his support for the WGA and its demands before discussing his own strike beard and introducing a hilarious video piece in which he sang the Beastie Boys’ “Sabotage” as Edith Bunker.
What has been noticeably absent from both shows, at least for the time being, is anger. These men have been sidelined for months because their peers are being screwed over by billionaires.
But instead of lashing out, Letterman is showing off his writers’ talents with extended bits and Conan is quietly highlighting what’s missing. It’s funny to see Conan screwing around aimlessly, but it’s also more than a little sad. He’s clearly doing half a show and he’s not afraid to let everyone know it. He’s also threatening to make good on his longstanding promise to one day do a show comprised entirely of him dancing to an extended jam session by the Max Weinberg 7, which would easily be the most awesome form of protest imaginable.
Despite all this, I don’t think the strike will prove successful. The writers ultimately depend on the studios much more than the studios need them. Ratings are down across the board, and not a single show from the new TV season has emerged as a break-out hit. Executives would probably do away with writers altogether if they had their way; reality shows are cheaper and easier to produce and often get higher ratings than their scripted counterparts.
A new season of American Idol and a Dancing With The Stars spin-off will probably render writers a luxury instead of a necessity in the eyes of the suits.
But I hope I’m wrong. The good guys deserve to win this fight.
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