The US TV writers’ strike: why it’s happening, and how it could affect you

The Writers Guild of America and the Alliance of Motion Picture and Television Producers are at loggerheads over a new contract – and the potential action could delay a lot of your favourite TV shows come September.

Yesterday (April 24) the Writers Guild of America voted to authorize strike action against the Alliance of Motion Picture and Television Producers (AMPTP), putting in jeopardy the return of your favourite TV shows in autumn 2017, and potentially hampering the ongoing seasons of late night shows like SNL. Here’s what you need to know about the strike, from when and why it’s happening to how it could affect your telly-viewing over the coming months.

1. When’s it happening?

If an agreement isn’t reached, The Writers Guild of America will begin striking next Tuesday, on May 2, and the action could continue all summer. The last strike, 10 years ago, lasted 100 days.

2. So wait – is it actually going to happen?

It’s hard to say at this stage. The WGA has voted to authorise the strike action – so the strike hasn’t been called yet. The old contract between WGA and AMPTP expires on May 1, at which point we’ll know for sure whether or not a strike is going ahead. AMPTP has said: “The companies are committed to reaching a deal at the bargaining table that keeps the industry working. The 2007 Writers Strike hurt everyone. Writers lost more than $287 million in compensation that was never recovered, deals were cancelled, and many writers took out strike loans to make ends meet. We remain focused on our objective of reaching a deal with the WGA at the bargaining table when the guild returns on April 25th.” Negotiations are ongoing – so watch this space.

3. What happened during the last strike?

The 2007-2008 WGA strike was a long and acrimonious one, lasting 100 days from November 5, 2007 to February 12, 2008. It was publicly supported by many actors and many shows went on extended breaks. Ellen DeGeneres said she supported the strike but still crossed the picket line and, though she did not perform a monologue on her show during the strike’s duration, the East Coast branch of the WGA said she was “not welcome in NY”. According to polls, 84% of Americans were aware of the strike and almost 2/3 of the public was supportive of it. Eventually the studios and the WGA came to an agreement, though lawsuits later had to be filed by WGA enforcing the upholding of the agreement.

4. Why are they striking?

The union has about 12,000 members, all of whom receive pension and health plans, and detailed assurances to do with their employers. In this instance, they’re striking because so-called ‘peak TV’ has changed the way the industry works to the extent that they’re now getting a bad deal on several things.

First is the fact that recent years have been very kind to studio profits, but writers currently aren’t seeing any of those benefits. In fact, Vox reports that many have had their wages go down. The increased number of TV shows has had an effect on the industry: seasons of new shows are a lot shorter than normal, at around 8-10 episodes per season instead of 20-24. There also tends to be a longer gap between seasons now as well, and a longer period between seasons. This means writers, who are paid per episode, are having their wages stretched – and they want fairer compensation to reflect this.

Many staff writers also want exclusivity dropped. Right now, staff writers can be tied into a contract that lasts a show’s entire run, and are not allowed to work on other scripts if, for example, their show goes on break. This means they’re unable to fill holes in their finances when it would be much fairer if they were able to. The Guild’s healthcare plan is also reportedly close to bankruptcy – so they’ll want studios to contribute to this.

5. So how will it affect me?

Autumn starts for scripted US TV shows will be delayed – and the seasons will be shortened

That’s a pain for fans of hit shows like The Walking Dead, whose likely October start date for season 8 would be severely impacted by any strike action. There is also speculation by Entertainment Weekly that the strike could affect Netflix shows like Jessica Jones, despite the fact that Netflix doesn’t deal with Writers Guild of America like more traditional TV networks do.

Topical news shows will lose their teeth

A much bigger impact will be made on daily shows like Stephen Colbert and Seth Meyers’. Alongside those, weekly shows like Saturday Night Live will suddenly be unable to operate in the same way, with some expected to stop completely. Increasingly political segments from late-night shows like Meyers’, Colbert’s and SNL have been holding Trump’s administration to account on a daily or weekly basis – and unfortunately the Writers’ strike will probably put a stop to all that.