While I hate to see my favorite television shows go dark, the alternative is frightening. I envision a scene similar to the Saturday Night Live skit “Wake Up and Smile.” Will Ferrell, Nancy Walls and David Alan Grier play hosts of a peppy morning news show whose teleprompter malfunctions. With no words from the writers, the trio are left to improvise, and the scene quickly spirals into a bloody struggle for survival, straight out of Lord of the Flies.
Members and supporters of The Writer’s Guild of America began picketing on Monday outside studios in New York and California. Key issues remain unresolved, including DVD residuals, and payment for shows that air online. Writers receive 5 cents while studios collect 9 dollars from the sale of a $20 DVD. The average salary for a primetime television writer is under $100,000, with many earning much less.
Many expect this strike to last as long, or longer, than the last writer’s strike, which took place in 1988 and lasted 22 weeks. Actors and producers have joined the ranks, along with show runners, the folks who oversee every aspect of a show’s production. Often, show runners are writers, and this little wrinkle has major implications for television shows currently in production.
While many of a show runner’s duties do not involve writing per se, they’d have to cross picket lines to perform those aspects of the job. Unwilling to cross that line, many show runners have halted production on several shows including FOX’s popular drama 24. And cast members of NBC’s The Office refused to cross picket lines, helping to cease production on that show as well. Even with completed scripts to work from, it’s likely that future episodes of many shows will not be finished, forcing an early end to the season.
Not everyone is supporting the strike, though. While Jon Stewart and Conan O’Brien are supporting their writers, along with fellow talk-show host Jay Leno, Ellen DeGeneres crossed picket lines on Tuesday to tape her show. It doesn’t look like solidarity is high on DeGeneres’ list. Unlike Disney executive Michael Eisner, who called the strike “stupid” at a recent conference, politicians Barack Obama, Hillary Clinton, and John Edwards backed the Writer’s Guild.
Until the Writer’s Guild is satisfied with an agreement that includes fair compensation for their work, we’re likely looking at repeats very soon.