The Strike Heard ‘Round the World

The Strike Heard ‘Round the World

It’s déjà vu all over again. In March 1988, Hollywood writers went on strike, and stayed on the picket line until August of that year. The issue then was pretty much the same issue as it is now in 2007, though dressed up in high-tech clothes. In ’88 it was syndication residuals; now, it’s residuals for digital formats like DVDs and the internet. But it comes down to the same thing: money.

And the writers’ have a point; they’re by no means among the highest paid of the creative class in Hollywood, averaging a yearly salary of 70K to start, and topping out at an average of 150K. Tough for most of the country to have a lot of sympathy for those kinds of wages, admittedly. That’s dream money for most Americans, but not necessarily in Los Angeles, and especially not in an industry that pays outlandish amounts to other talents. And to be sure, Hollywood can’t run without its writers. Writers are the backbone of the industry, and don’t get enough credit or shares of the pie. Or respect, for that matter — the classic powerless-writer joke, after all, goes something like this: how can you tell which actress on a set is new to the business? She’s the one sleeping with the writer.

The 1988 strike was different in one important respect, though; timing. It started on March 7 — close enough to the natural end of the season that most shows weren’t heavily affected (and since this was before the wide use of the season finale model for all shows, and not just prime-time soaps like Dallas, the average sitcom didn’t miss the last few episodes of its run that year). And the strike ended on August 7 — soon enough for most shows to start up either on time or just a few weeks late. Most of the strike happened over the summer, when the public is used to re-runs. So in terms of new programming, the ’88 strike wasn’t a huge factor. That’s not to say that it didn’t have an impact; television was affected overall — late night talk shows most apparently — and it’s estimated that fully 10% of TV viewers never came back to the tube when the writers finally did.

The 2007 strike, though, is happening in November, just six weeks into the new season. There are enough scripts done to take most series’ through the end of the year, but — what then? How much more of the audience will give up on TV completely if, say, the entire Spring season was sacrificed? The same 10%, or more?

This question is compounded by another, larger concern: the already slipping numbers of TV viewers. And the 2007 strike is, in itself, a side-effect of this larger problem: the audience’s move to other mediums. Just as TV is embracing high-def television, the way of the TV set as we know it may be passing. Digital is becoming king, both in terms of recorded material (DVD sales), self-scheduled TV viewing (Digital Video Recorders like TiVo), and streaming or downloadable video (increasingly available on the internet through both commercial sources like iTunes as well as free services offered by the networks themselves, either as a preview or after its initial airing). Television execs know this; they know that their revenue streams are changing, being diverted, and if they’re not the ones actively controlling the new money flows, then they’ll go the way of the ice harvesters in the era of refrigeration.

Writers know this too. And this could be more than a strike. This could well be the shot heard ‘round the world of television: the start of a revolution. -- Teague Bohlen


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