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Will a writers' strike shut down ‘SNL,’ late-night shows?

A TV writers strike may dishearten fans expecting

A TV writers strike may dishearten fans expecting to see Melissa McCarthy return to the podium as Sean Spicer May 13, when she's scheduled to host "Saturday Night Live." Credit: NBC / Will Heath

The Writers Guild of America, representing about 12,000 members, could go on strike as early as Tuesday.

Or not.

Either way, the industry hasn’t been on the edge of this particular cliff in nearly a decade, when a 100-day strike halted production on hundreds of shows, and left a residue of mistrust between writers and studios that lingers to this day. Ending in February 2008, the Guild got some of what it originally sought, but the effects of the strike were devastating, on livelihoods and an entire industry. TV also learned how to fill “pipelines” without writers, and viewers still came. As the Tuesday deadline looms, only one conclusive observation seems valid at this moment: No one wants a replay of those months, viewers included.

What’s happening now?

The WGA is expected to hand another proposal to the Alliance of Motion Picture and Television Producers — representing the studios — on Friday. Negotiations are expected through the weekend, possibly right up to deadline Monday midnight.

What are the issues this time?

As always, money, money and money. Basically, however, there are at least a couple of major sticking points. Foremost, writers want the latitude to work on multiple series at once. They are now bound by exclusivity contracts, which they claim limits their income potential. In this era of “peak TV,” there are hundreds more shows on TV and streaming services, but the majority tend to be short-order series, of about 10 to 13 episodes. Per the WGA, “with the per-episode payment structure for TV writers, it pays for only half of a traditional full season, even though it usually takes the writer off the market for a full year.” Ergo: Incomes for some writers have been cut in half too. Writers also want the studios to boost funding for their health plan — a particularly generous one that is now running at a deficit. Studios appear reluctant to continue feeding coins into this plan.

Anything else?

The industry — movies and especially television — changes daily, as do consumer habits. VOD — video on demand — is a fast-growing form of viewing, while now the bulk of late-night viewing takes place the following day. Netflix, Amazon and Hulu are huge venues now, but virtually nonexistent 10 years ago. (Hulu was launched March 2007, and Netflix was a declining DVD business). How to compensate for playback? The Guild wants a raise — members collectively now make about $39 million from streaming revenue — and the studios, per reports, seem willing to give the same bump they gave to directors. That $39 million sounds like a big number, but in the scheme of things, it’s pennies, nickels and maybe dimes. Three years from now — when the next agreement will be negotiated — the bulk of all viewing could be streaming, and probably will be.

What’s the mood?

Think of it as an iffy weather forecast — cloudy with a 50/50 chance of rain. The forecast does seem to fluctuate by the day, even by the hour. The Guild’s membership voted overwhelmingly to authorize a strike earlier this week. But that could simply be a show of unity as opposed to a show of anger. The union does want to present a united front, and has. Nevertheless, even with all the saber rattling, the mood does seem a little brighter this time. Writers who remember the last walkout aren’t anxious to repeat; studios, meanwhile, know a walkout is still possible. But one of the biggest producers in the world — Comcast Universal — offered a sanguine outlook Thursday, when CEO Steve Burke told security analysts during a conference call (as reported in The Hollywood Reporter), “In the majority of cases, things get resolved and I am optimistic and hopeful that the writers strike will get resolved. Strikes aren’t good for anybody. … People on both sides of the table tend to lose, and I am hopeful that we are going to get it done.”

If there is a strike, what will happen?

First casualties are always the late-night shows, which will go into repeat immediately. “Saturday Night Live” — riding one of its most successful seasons in years — will lose the final three live (airing simultaneously on both coasts) editions — including a much-anticipated Melissa McCarthy-hosted show on May 13 — of the season, assuming a deal isn’t struck quickly. Plenty of scripted shows continued in production in 2007 — “South Park,” which was nonunion, for example, and “Mad Men,” which had agreed to a separate deal with Lionsgate. But most shows were put in mothballs. This meant shortened seasons for many because networks could air only the episodes that had been completed. Production, of course, did not resume until the strike ended.


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