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Why Does a Writer's Strike Affect Television Programming?

In the case of a writers' strike, a television or film project may halt production.
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  • Written By: Tricia Ellis-Christensen
  • Edited By: O. Wallace
  • Last Modified Date: 12 November 2014
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When writers who belong to the Writers Guild of America Union are unsatisfied with the terms of their contracts with television and motion picture studios, they can choose to initiate a writer's strike. This can be a disabling blow to the television and motion picture industry, because even a script that has already been written needs amendments and adjustments as a show is filmed. Without writers, this can’t be accomplished, forcing television shows to run out of episodes to film, and movies that are being filmed to halt production.

Such a writer's strike occurred in 2007, and mainly concerned the rights of writers to royalties from DVD sales of television series, rebroadcasts on the Internet, and podcasts. The emerging technology of these profitable markets, especially the jump in popularity of DVDs of series and downloadable episodes or films, prompted writers to demand greater compensation for sale of their work in other non-traditional markets. When this type of writer’s strike occurs, other unions, including unions outside of the entertainment industry, have to choose sides. Actor’s unions often strike with writers, while producers tend to be on the opposite side of the fence, since they are bargaining over profits to which they feel entitled.

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If a writer's strike lasts long enough, it does have a negative effect on television programming. This may depend upon when the strike occurs and also how long it lasts. A strike lasting for several weeks during the fall or spring season means that most major shows are in production. They have filmed some of the scripts already written, but they may only be a week or two ahead in filming of the shows that are airing. Further, staff writers aren’t on hand for rewrites, which means any rewriting is done by people who don’t usually hold the job, which in turn can create lower quality scripts in the finished product. Normally, once a television show has run out of scripts, production on the show must end until the strike is resolved.

What this means in terms of television programming is that filming is delayed, new episodes are not forthcoming, and broadcast stations must choose to air reruns, perhaps much earlier than they planned. Some shows, with late starts, like those in January, can have production of their earliest episodes delayed and may decide to skip a season if a writer’s strike occurs in late fall or early winter of the previous year. Networks may also decide to air other pilots, or new shows they were saving for a later time or only considering airing. What tends to be important to networks is that fewer people watch reruns, which translates to less revenue from commercial ad placements. Advertising spots are worth as much when a network airs a rerun, and fan loyalty to shows can be lost if fans must wait a long time for a new episode of their favorite show.

It’s in the interest of all parties: writers, producers, directors, actors, and film crew to resolve a writer's strike as quickly as possible. Prolonged strikes dramatically alter television programming, lose money for networks, and keep actors, camera people, special effects teams, sound experts, directors and producers out of work. Costs to make up the time lost can be astronomical, and networks continue to make less money than expected while the writer's strike lasts.

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