Hollywood writers are on strike for the first time in 15 years.
But the dramatically changed landscape that inspired the walkout — an industry that’s focus-shifted to streaming content — is also going to make it tougher for viewers to even notice their protest, hardship and sacrifice. At least in the near term.
This isn’t to weigh in on the writers’ reasons for striking. As their outraged reactions to the current round of talks have made clear, there are real issues on the table sparked by an entire industry distribution model that’s changed, and studios are alleged to be unwilling to engage on key points by the WGA.
Yet headwinds exist that weren’t around during the last strike, and they might result in a difficult walkout.
First, there’s the timing. The previous strike began in November 2007 — right at the start of the broadcast TV season and back when the Big Four networks were still the way that most people consumed entertainment. (Per Nielsen’s latest Gauge report, streaming nabbed 34 percent of TV usage in March, as opposed to 23 percent for broadcast.) The scripted series pipeline — with many productions grinding out episodes six to eight weeks ahead of air — quickly ran dry. This time, the strike started just as the season is wrapping up, and there’s a universe of other streaming options available.
Granted, late night shows will quickly shut down (as they’re written up to the moment of broadcast). But haven’t you heard? Late night has been dying amid shrinking audience share and a recent spate of departing hosts anyway (one, Fox News’ Gutfeld!, will continue unabated).
We’re also so many peaks into Peak TV. A record 599 original scripted shows aired in 2022, up 7 percent from 2021, adding onto the growing and insurmountable pile of potential on-demand viewing.
Plus, we’re a couple years out from a pandemic-fueled industry shutdown that was so much more disruptive than any strike — the COVID-19 lockdown brought the entire industry to a halt for months (not just late night and scripted, but also reality and sports — which will continue during the strike). Viewing options certainly shrank, but many fans used the pandemic pipeline slowdown as an excuse to catch up on content they’d missed. Studios were significantly wounded — and certainly don’t want another shutdown — yet also now know how much of a downturn they can survive.
And, unlike with the pandemic, which struck out of the blue, studios have been quietly planning for the WGA strike for months, taking measures such as stockpiling unscripted programming and doling out early renewals.
None of this even takes into account all the other ways viewers are keeping entertained today versus 2008: TikTok. Instagram. Podcasts (a much larger industry than it was 15 years ago). YouTube (which was only 3 years old during the last strike).
Of course, viewers who aren’t late night or broadcast TV fans will certainly notice the strike if it goes on long enough. But it might theoretically need to keep going far longer than anybody is comfortable with in order to have the same level of visible industry impact as it did the last time (and therefore, to exert a similar amount of pressure on studios). It’s a sobering thought, given how far apart both sides seem to be at the outset of the strike (the last one lasted 100 days).
Which isn’t to suggest studios don’t have cause for concern. Any work stoppage is an economic hardship — especially given the rise of rival forms of entertainment like social media and gaming. “We compete with (and lose to) Fortnite more than HBO,” Netflix leaders wrote in a letter to shareholders in 2019. Yet sources say studios are not yet in panic mode, given they’re prepared for a three- to four-month walkout.
“We’ve done as much last-minute running around as we can,” says one veteran movie studio executive. “The TV side is much more impacted. The one issue where you will see genuine concern immediately is if the directors and actors join in … [And] if the strike extends beyond four months, then we really start to worry.”
Pamela McClintock contributed to this report.