How The Writers' Strike Of 2007 Still Reverberates Across TV

Updated April 23, 2019 7.4k views

In the greater context of 21st-century labor history, it is remarkable that some of the highest-profile strikes have taken place in Hollywood. This shouldn’t be wholly surprising - behind the glamorous veneer of Tinseltown lies a seedy underbelly of contract deceit, lies, and hustles. This rings especially true for the television industry, which is marred by a grisly public strike nearly every decade. With the advent of infinite cable channels and streaming options, there are more frustratingly exploitable loopholes than ever before. As the vicious cycle begins anew yet again, it is prudent to examine the other great labor dispute in 2000s television history, the writers' strike of 2007. It ended careers, started careers, tanked your favorite show, saved your favorite character, and might be the skeleton key to better understand what the hell happened when the majority of the Writer's Guild fired their agents in April 2019. 

The 2007 Strike Cost Hollywood Over $2 Billion

Article ImageIn the fall of 2007, disputes between the members of the Writers Guild of America (WGA) and corporate media giants in Hollywood reached a fever pitch. During the routine three-year contract negotiation between writers and production companies, the WGA advocated for higher pay and compensation for digitally distributed media. The trade association that represents the writers guild, the Alliance of Motion Picture and Television Producers (AMPTP), refused to meet their demands. The AMPTP’s membership is comprised of hundreds of studio giants, including NBC, CBS, Fox, and Universal. As a result of the failed negotiations, the entire force of writers behind Writers Guild of America, East and Writers Guild of America, West went on a 100-day strike.

From a labor history standpoint, the strike's financial impact was astounding. The previous strike in 1988 - which lasted 53 days longer - cost the entertainment industry approximately $500 million. The 2007-2008 strike, however, cost Hollywood over $2 billion.

The morale amongst corporate moguls took a severe hit as well. Studio executives expected the writers to splinter, due to their wide array of priorities, interests, and experience in the field. The reality could not have been farther from their assumptions - the union composed of clouted showrunners and relatively green freelancers held steady until the studios finally agreed to negotiations, and the strike impacted the trajectory of television for years to come.


It Changed The Trajectories Of Your Favorite Shows

All told, over 60 shows shut down as a direct result of the strike, affecting both ad revenue and ratings. Of the shows lucky enough to avoid total cancellation, many suffered shortened seasons, unfinished plotlines, and permanently marked reputations. The second season of Heroes took a substantial hit, airing less than half of its ordered episodes. Before the strike, the season was criticized for its slow, unfocused storyline. After the show returned from an unexpected nine-month hiatus, the plot twist that revealed the "big-picture story" was ill-received.Article Image

While many fan-favorite shows languished, not all the narrative decisions made as a result of the strike were for the worse. One remarkable example is Breaking Bad, which was originally slated for two additional episodes in its first season. When filming the pilot, series creator Vince Gilligan planned to off Jesse Pinkman (Aaron Paul) - Walter White’s long-suffering sidekick - in the ninth episode, but the strike forced him to reevaluate this decision. The entire Tuco plotline was rewritten to keep Jesse alive, and the arc continued into the first two episodes of the second season.

To Gilligan's credit, he knew by the second episode that Paul offered the show something truly special as both an actor and a character - the strike simply solidified his decision. It set a trend for Paul's character, as Jesse Pinkman continued to narrowly escape the grave for four more seasons.

A handful of scripted shows aired during the strike, most notably late night talk shows. The Daily Show, jokingly dubbed A Daily Show to differentiate from its pre-written format, was on hiatus for the first two months of the strike. Jon Stewart, a member of the Writers Guild of America himself, was not able to write any of his own material during this time, so the show was primarily comprised of ad-libbed conversations about planned topics. Stewart spoke candidly about the strike, acknowledging the tonal difference between The Daily Show and A Daily Show.

It Brought About The Renaissance Of Reality Television

Article ImageWith dozens of scripted shows suddenly taken off the air, broadcast networks scrambled to fill the blank space with unscripted content, which resulted in the renaissance of reality television. In the 2007-2008 season alone, more than 100 unscripted shows debuted or returned.

Due to its newfound profitability under desperate circumstances, reality television was allowed to expand as a genre. During the reign of buddy cops and medical dramas, scripted television had become boring and predictable, so the American public was quick to embrace something as freeform and bizarre as, say, A Shot at Love with Tila Tequila. Some other remarkable entries from the same season include Keeping Up With The Kardashians, Kitchen Nightmares, Say Yes to the Dress, and The Real Housewives of Atlanta, all of which had a prominent impact on pop culture in the following years. The Kardashians were arguably able to build their entire media empire as a direct result of the reality television boom.


The Issues Started With Digitally Distributed Content

While equitable pay was one of the major goals of the strike, the real catalyst that had long-reaching implications was compensation for digitally distributed content, known then as "new media." New media refers to anything explicitly written for or distributed through the internet. One of the proposals positioned by the WGA involved residual payment of 2.5% of gross revenue for all content distributed through new media.

Up until this point, AMPTP companies were raking in all the revenue from streams and digital downloads, which generated billions of dollars. This exploitation was reminiscent of a similar argument made by the WGA in the 1980s when writers were not receiving residual payment for home video and pay-per-view sales. The rate of residual payment had not risen since the previous negotiations that spanned the greater half of the 1980s. Compared to 30 years ago, the cost of video production and distribution had substantially decreased by 2007. With that cost in mind, the WGA of 2007 found the lack of payment for the comparatively inexpensive streaming model that much more preposterous and exploitative.

It Changed The Way We Watch TV

Article ImageAt the dawn of the age of new media, there were two potential models of content distribution. The first, "digital sell-through," allowed consumers to purchase downloadable content to be stored on their personal devices, one example being the iTunes store. The second model, "streaming video," allowed consumers to watch a program hosted on the distributor's server, with Netflix standing as the most prominent example.

While other services existed before it, Netflix popularized the streaming model after launching its digital service in mid-2007. Subscribers’ newfound ability to choose television shows from a massive catalogue struck fear into studio executives during the strike, as they were already suffering plummeting ratings. How I Met Your Mother is an especially good example of a show that simultaneously suffered and benefited from the digital media trend. The third season was interrupted by the strike, which took it off the air for three months. Upon its return to CBS, it was losing to a reality show, Deal Or No Deal. The show’s future seemed bleak - until the entire series was made available on Netflix.

Because fans were able to binge-watch the entire series at their leisure, they were more likely to follow the current season on live television. This was a wakeup call for showrunners and executives who realized the potential impact digital media was going to have on how people engaged with television.

The emergent digital genre branched off in many directions, and some producers used the strike as an opportunity to divest from the standard format of television. Joss Whedon, the creator of Buffy The Vampire Slayer, was one of many fed-up showrunners who abstained from creating television content during the strike. To occupy himself, he decided to show the studios that writers were still capable of making things people wanted to see without help from distributors. On a shoestring budget, he released the web miniseries Dr. Horrible's Sing-Along Blog on the eponymous character’s personal site, with videos hosted by Hulu. It was free to watch and all three episodes released in the same week. Its star-studded cast, featuring Neil Patrick Harris, Nathan Fillion, and Felicia Day, were all properly compensated, and the series still turned an impressive profit without any studio oversight, which sent a powerful message to Hollywood.

Dr. Horrible was incredibly well-received, and in many ways, it foretold the trend of narrative-building through vlogs that overtook the internet in the form of YouTubers and other web personalities in the late 2010s.

It Gave Birth To Prestige TV

Though the issue of payment for digital media proved to be a major headache for union writers, the resulting brouhaha was largely responsible for the renaissance of scripted television, often referred to Article Imageas “prestige television.” This did not come without pain and consequence that disproportionately affected the rank-and-file members of the writing industry. In terms of financial success and recognition, the writer ecosystem was already heavily stacked in favor of seasoned writers prior to the strike, but commissions for freelancers fell dramatically in its aftermath. People who were already established in the field had the ability to coast on recognition from previous projects and take a pay cut, while young, inexperienced writers were deemed not worth the risk.

The advent of a new medium for distribution is what ultimately turned this trend around and allowed an entirely new fleet of creators to showcase their work, free from the tethers of studio connections. The television landscape changed permanently when streaming services began producing original content. Netflix took the helm when it released House Of Cards and Orange Is The New Black in 2013, which challenged traditional television networks to create their own comparably freeform programs and inspired dozens of other media streaming services to enter the fray. The sudden abundance of options for pitching new, provocative content provided writers with a morale boost that inspired them to create more interesting and original work, as they were less beholden to the Article Imagerigid expectations of the large studios.

In the hazy milieu of mid-aughts family sitcoms and talent competitions, society’s need for a superpowered private investigator, a TV show from Gerard Way, and children from the '80s fighting underworld monsters was not yet apparent. Back then, these sorts of entries would have been considered too daring or suggestive, but streaming television has been mostly free from the censorship constraints of cable TV. This set a new precedent for the cable shows that in turn became more deviant and daring, allowing something as gorgeous yet inherently grotesque as Hannibal to air on television. The slow disintegration of genres was also an unexpected result - a romantic drama comedy spy thriller sounds like a logistical improbability, but Killing Eve exists and society is better for it.

It Brought Us To The WGA's 2019 Fight Against Agents

The cultural revolution of television has been a net positive for both writers and consumers, but it has come at a cost - production companies and agencies have found novel ways to exploit new platforms and unfairly capitalize on the labor of writers. Despite the major impact the 2007 strike had on the entertainment industry at large, writers are still struggling to advocate for fair compensation for their work. In 2019, the WGA had no choice but to combat the monopoly between talent agencies and production companies.

While profits for television production hit an all-time high in 2019, writer pay dropped 23% between 2014 and 2016. With less oversight than traditional networks, talent agencies have started to claim ownership stakes in the newer platforms. This creates a conflict of interest, as writers remain reliant on agents for work and negotiation but are at the mercy of preexisting business relationships that may not be in their professional interest. David Simon, creator of The Wire, put it most succinctly:

If you can only leverage profit for yourself, but not for me, what the f*ck do I need you for? Why are you on this ride at all? At the point that he can only achieve benefit for himself and not for his client, what the f*ck good is an agent?

This sounds very familiar. Looking through the ongoing statements released by the WGA in the wake of the agent debacle, there are obvious echoes of the resentments from the 2007 strike. While the future of long-suffering writers remains to be seen, their ability to simultaneously stand in solidarity with one another and generate binge-worthy TV hits is unarguably admirable.