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As Writers’ Strike Looms, Streaming Services Are Trying to Minimize Disruptions for Viewers

Jessica Lerner

As the possibility of a writers’ strike looms, studios are bracing for the fallout. The Writers Guild of America’s contract with studios expires on May 1, and if the two parties can’t reach a compromise before then, Hollywood could essentially shut down. A strike would put many projects at risk of delays or even cancellation because the schedules of actors, directors, and production employees are set months or even years in advance. Therefore, through a variety of backup plans, including accelerating production schedules, stockpiling scripts, and increasing foreign productions, studios, networks, and producers are planning and preparing for the worst.

“The entire town is dealing with fear, anxiety and depression, and that’s without there being a massive strike,” Peter Newman, head of NYU Tisch School of the Arts’ MBA/ MFA program, told Variety. “Companies are bleeding money, and no one has figured out a cogent business plan for the next decade. There might not be enough pieces of the pie to go around.”

The situation may not seem that dire at first because the results will not be felt immediately. Since there are finished scripts ready to be made, TV shows won’t stop shooting right away. However, there won’t be a writer on site to improve the dialogue or fix any plot issues that arise during the filming of those projects. Eventually, though, many shows will have to halt production if a strike drags on as no one will be available to write new episodes.

Even though the WGA hasn’t settled on proposals for the talks, John August, a writer on the WGA bargaining committee, told the Los Angeles Times that studios and networks are already preparing for what might happen. Efforts include opening writers’ rooms early to get to try to get scripts in by May 1 and rearranging schedules and moving production dates as an additional contingency measure to finish projects before a possible work stoppage.

The majority of the changes pertain to TV productions rather than feature films, which require a much lengthier lead time. Some studios started ordering new seasons of shows earlier than normal — as early as the fall of 2022 — so that they could get a head start on production in case the potential writers’ strike

Additionally, to deal with a potentially protracted strike, Bloomberg reports that studio executives have been hoarding scripts and accelerating shooting schedules in an effort to continue filming during the potential stoppage. However, the Los Angeles Times reports that there isn’t as much stockpiling of scripts as in earlier bargaining rounds because studios reportedly accelerated production after the pandemic shutdown, meaning that many more writers were already working and unable to up their output.

“It seems as though they’re relying on what has already been done in the past during these last couple years in order to make sure that they’re covered, if and when there is a strike,” Stein Simonds told the Los Angeles Times.

Studios and networks frequently prepare for the worst by storing up scripts or rearranging their timetables when these types of disruptions are forthcoming. Prior strikes, such as the one in 1988, caused networks to postpone their fall programming; many network productions were stopped by the 100-day-long writers’ strike that occurred in 2007–08.

Not every company is taking preparations, though. Bloomberg reports that Michael De Luca, co-chair of the Warner Bros. movie studio, said on March 3 at the Texas Film Awards that the strike “is talked about like ‘Gee, we need to stockpile material.’”

For Warner Bros., he said, it’s business as usual. “We don’t agree on rushing things to prepare for a strike and ending up with a subpar screenplay or subpar movies.”

Despite the widespread impact of a strike, not all types of programming will be impacted equally. Since reality television and animation writers are not members of the WGA, their shows can continue as normal. The Writers’ Guild has made efforts to get the unions representing those creators to join in the strike, but as of now, they have been unsuccessful. However, if reality and animation writers do not join the work stoppage, even an increase in those types of programming won’t be sufficient to fill in the gaps left by interrupted scripted projects, especially if the strike goes on for multiple months, as it WGA stoppages have in the past.

Moreover, a writers’ strike could prove especially detrimental for shows on streaming services compared with those on broadcast networks. Traditionally, networks have ordered 22 to 24 episodes per season, and while some shows have begun seeing shorter episode counts over the past few years, many still pump out 20-plus episodes per season. If a writers’ strike does happen, many series will see their episode counts drop, similar to what happened during the 2007-08 WGA strike. Shows like “Gossip Girl,” “The Big Bang Theory,” and “Scrubs” had shortened seasons, but they were still able to air at least a dozen or so episodes.

However, a “dozen or so episodes” is higher than the episode count for many original shows on cable and streaming platforms, which are usually eight to 10 episodes per season. So a writers’ strike could essentially wipe out an entire season for a streamer. It’s important to note that shows on streaming services aren’t bound to the same time constraints of network TV, meaning these shows can film over an entire season over two to three years without worry while broadcast shows film several months a year to complete one season.

Despite this, streaming executives are not going to be happy with their timetables getting derailed and could prompt a spike in cancelations and un-renewals as expenses incurred from delayed production rise. Such planning is key for studios, networks, and producers because delays or cancellations can be very costly.

“If there is a strike, it could be hugely detrimental,” said Simonds to the Los Angeles Times. “You’ve got actor schedules that you’re relying on, same thing with directors. There’s all these things that are worked out months and months in advance. To put a hold on that, everything gets delayed and messed up and you kind of have to start from scratch.”

Some companies and producers are considering reality or unscripted shows as a possible replacement for scripted fare that would be affected by a work stoppage in order to deal with these expenses. After the 2007 strike, reality TV shows, such as “The Apprentice,” saw significant growth. Additionally, some studios are looking to increase international productions, as those projects are not covered by the WGA’s rules. In the coming year, Netflix already expects to focus on its international markets in an effort to continue to add subscribers internationally. With WGA concerns, streamers with global footprints could supplement their domestic content output with more international productions.

Beyond the delayed and canceled projects, a writers’ strike would completely upend companies that are already experiencing cutbacks and attempting to recover from the pandemic. As they seek to pay off the debt from building their streaming libraries or engaging in mergers, companies like Netflix, Disney, and Warner Bros. Discovery have become serious about cutting costs.

These companies don’t have many options: Investors have lost interest in the “subscriber growth at any cost” philosophy that led the last wave of the streaming wars. Instead, companies are focusing on profits from their streaming business, which could be significantly impacted by a potential strike. Therefore, finding a compromise with writers who feel they aren’t getting their fair portion of the revenue that they help generate could be difficult.

Any way you slice it, a writers’ strike could prove devastating for streaming, but at this point, it’s still too early to tell if a strike will even happen. Streamers, though, have seen the writing on the wall and are taking every precaution because it’s better to plan ahead than be caught completely off guard.


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