Picture this: It’s 2021, and you’re seventeen years old. Your family is watching Friday Night Lights together as a COVID–19–era bonding activity, with your parents, who love the show, showing it to you and your little brother for the first time. You adore Jesse Plemmons’ nice–nerdy guy Landry and his relationship with not–bad–just–troubled girl Tyra (Adrianne Palicki). He kills a guy who is attempting to assault her. The season abruptly ends while halfway done, and the next one does nothing to resolve this plotline. You are very, very confused. The writing, prior to this, was very good. This … this is bad.
When the Writers Guild of America went on strike in 2007, the first thing that the public noticed as impacted by the strike were the broadcast television shows written on a daily or weekly basis. Think late–night talk shows and SNL. Anything that required an incredibly rapid turnaround from its writers shuttered. (If you’re a devoted late-night or SNL watcher, you already know that this current strike is following the same trajectory.) Next came an onslaught of reality television. Despite the fact that it’s an open secret that reality TV isn’t without editing manipulation, it’s still unscripted, and therefore kosher to be created during a writers’ strike. (This is happening again, with the big broadcast networks’ programming schedules for the upcoming season being highly reliant on reality TV.)
Last came scripted TV’s head–scratching abrupt ends to seasons or unresolved plotlines. With long–form broadcast shows, most of the writing has been done in advance. The whole season may not be finished by the time episode one starts production, but plotlines have been laid out, and arcs have started their upwards ascent. With the 2007 strike beginning in November, and with the traditional broadcast season going from fall to spring, seasons hadn’t been completed by the time the strike went into action. This meant that episodes that had already been commissioned could be put through production and post–production, allowing shows to eke out a few more episodes while its writers were on strike, but after that, when it came to scripted TV, nothing.
Shows ended their seasons early. Some, like Friday Night Lights and Lost, met famously (almost comically) bad ends to their season. Some, such as Pushing Daisies, were never able to find firm footing due to a cut–short debut season. A few, like Supernatural with its fourth–season addition of Misha Collins’ Castiel after a shortened third season, and Breaking Bad with its many rumors of the near–death of Jesse Pinkman, may have changed for the better. No matter what, the strike’s impact had reached its zenith, with the entire industry at a standstill and with consumers unable to deny its impact any further now that the strike had caught up to the shows its writers poured their hearts into.
The strike lasted from November 2007 to February 2008. During this time, writers striked, actors supported, and Ellen DeGeneres, unsurprisingly, crossed the picket line. The driving force behind the strike was a sea of change in the way entertainment was being produced and an inability by studios to compensate writers fairly within this change. At the time, the rise of DVDs and the emergence of streaming services meant that reruns were much harder to quantify than they were in the years before, where one rerun equaled one re–airing of an episode equaled a residual check for the episode airing again. As it stood in 2007, these nontraditional platforms for screening entertainment and their inequitable residuals led writers to strike with demands that they would get fair residuals.
In the end, after 100 days, an agreement was reached, and some gains were made for the guild. Writers were able to secure a better deal on payment for episodes on streaming, the Internet, and new media, as well as establish a precedent for equitable pay with regard to content distributed across new media platforms.
In 2008, after the strike ended, the New York Times asked the question: Who won? Though that’s a fair question to ask (certainly, not all of the WGA’s demands were met), it’s hard to quantify that just based on the number of demands met. Writers are important, and their work is undervalued. The 2007 strike did a lot of things, but it most importantly showed the public that productions, from episodic broadcast comedies to high–profile movies, are nothing without their writers.
The tone the 2008 Times article takes toward the Internet and streaming is, in retrospect, somewhat comically condescending. But at the time, who could have predicted that advertising online would be lucrative? Or that a show like Succession, an entirely streaming–platformed show, would be the epitome of contemporary prestige television and a consistent frontrunner during awards season?
And yet, the Times said that it would be “hard to picture a situation where little programs for tiny screens will kick up the kind of network salaries and residuals that have been the mother’s milk of writers for decades”. In this regard, they were right.
With shorter seasons, smaller writers’ rooms, and the ever–increasing reliance on streaming services (who are now producing their own content), writers still face similar challenges as their predecessors. The issue of compensation in a changing media landscape has returned, and with it have the picket lines.
Writers are on strike once more, and it’s largely due to structures that inadequately fund writers for the work they do that ends up on streaming platforms, still heavily weighting broadcast and cable TV with much more monetary value (particularly when it comes to residuals) despite the fact that streaming viewership has topped cable viewership.
Streaming is, in fact, behind pretty much all of why the WGA is once again striking. Paychecks aside, the current mini–room model means shorter seasons, fewer weeks of employment for writers, less ability to be involved with the production and post–production process that takes place beyond the writers' room, and an overall vast barrier to advancing their experience and career. That, plus the terrifying prospect of AI–written scripts. In short, writers are on strike because they are once again being treated as interchangeable cogs, not as people with aspiring careers and a whole lot of creativity.
The 2007 strike was about adapting to the times and granting fair dues to writers for their work; the 2023 strike, though taking place in an entirely different media landscape, and though “fair dues” is defined in an entirely different way due to the context of this changed landscape, carries the same ethos. Writers are the backbone of the entertainment industry, and without them, a production is lifeless as the body and plot integrity buried by Friday Night Lights’ second season.