The 2007 Writers Strike Led To A Serious Decline of Quality Broadcast TV Shows.
Will History Repeat Itself With This One? Has It Already Started?
I am cautiously optimistic that we are nearing the final phases of the labor stoppage in Hollywood. Next week, the studios and the WGA are returning to the bargaining table and while the WGA walked away last time this happened, I think both sides are going to be far more inclined to come away with some kind of deal, no matter how unsatisfactory both sides might find it.
For the WGA (and SAG-AFTRA, though they haven’t yet begun to) economics will likely force their hands. The labor stoppage is now in its fifth month and no matter how great the will of the membership by this point the rank and file have to be feeling the pinch. Principles are one thing but as I heard recently in Beef, it is usually something that people with money can hold on to longer and they have to be running low.
For the studios it is more a matter of trying to salvage the rest of the year. The Emmys have already been postponed until next January (a not quite sarcastic thank you to everybody for that from me) and they are now reaching the point where TV has to try and salvage the fall season. The rest of 2023 has been scuttled and if they are to have anything for 2024 work has to start almost immediately. On a more cynical note, awards season for the fall is going to be begin pretty so and at a certain point having film festivals becomes ridiculous with no stars or talent. They have held firm to this point but neither side can risk their audiences completely disappearing.
So now I think it is time to look at what this record strike for the writers has cost. I don’t just mean the financial cost (I’ve listed it before and I’m pretty sure both guilds considered it a victory) or the cost to the people lower down the food chain (the immense excoriation of Drew Barrymore and Bill Maher for resuming their shows has made very clear their hypocrisy there) and certainly not the cost to viewing public (who is a sense responsible for the situation but neither side is willing to blame). No, I would like to discuss the creative cost. The Guilds have been saying that this strike has fundamentally been about them getting a fair wage for their labors. (I have expressed on multiple occasions what I think of this reasoning so I won’t repeat myself.) They have also said that Hollywood clearly has the money to pay them (I’m more firm on my grounds this is nonsense). Both of these ideas depend on the reasoning that there will always be a surplus of jobs, and that the trough will always be full. And I think it needs to be made very clear that, certainly when it comes to television, such may not be the case.
Since this week is, at least theoretically, the start of the fall season for network television., I think it is worth drawing a parallel between what happened at the end of the last major work stoppage to TV and what may happen after this one ends. Because not only do I think history will repeat itself, there’s an excellent argument it already has.
Those of you who have read this blog know that when this strike began I wrote about the last major writer’s strike in 2007. I argued that prior to the strike the networks were rivaling cable when it came to quality television and that the 2007–2008 season featured some of the best network shows on the lineup in many years. It is my belief that the work stoppage was the first in a line of dominoes that basically led to network television essentially surrendering Peak TV to first cable and then streaming. I will use ABC as the subject of this piece because the parallels to then and now are by far the clearest that the networks may be about to repeat their actions.
ABC has a particularly strong fall season in 2007, featuring Pushing Daisies, Dirty Sexy Money and Private Practice. In early 2008, they added another strong performer Eli Stone. The first three series performed so strongly that ABC renewed all three for a second season before the end of the year. However by the time work stoppage began all three shows had only filmed nine episodes.
When the stoppage ended on January 31, 2008, all the major networks did something very strange. All of the series that had been on the air prior to the 2007–2008 season — in the case of ABC, this including such previous critical and rating hits as Desperate Housewives, Grey’s Anatomy and Boston Legal — all resumed filming and finished the season, albeit with fewer episodes than the usual 22. However Pushing Daisies, Dirty Sexy Money and Private Practice did not resume filming and aired no more episodes than they had before the end of 2007. All three series returned at the fall of 2008, but in the more than ten months in between, the network had not aired a single rerun. As a result, while all three series still were at the critical peak with the exception of Private Practice, none of them had the high ratings that they had the previous year. By the winter of 2008, Dirty Sexy Money and Pushing Daisies were dead and Eli Stone, which had a similar problem, would be gone by the following March.
Almost every network followed a similar pattern with several of the series that they had renewed early in the fall of 2007, followed the same pattern, and almost to a show, none of them survived the 2008–2009 season. This included some critical and fan favorites including the NBC Damien Lewis show Life, Fox’s The Sarah Connor Chronicles and CW’s Reaper. Part of me has always speculated whether this was a punitive act by the networks because of the strike. They couldn’t go after their veteran shows, so they decided to take out series that essentially could have secured their continued success. The networks had decided to cut their collective noses off to spite their faces — or in this case, the ungrateful writers. The fact that, among other things, this has help ensure that series would increasingly have shorter runs and pay less money, might very well have been an unintended bonus.
Just prior to their collapse of negotiations between the writers and studios this spring there was a similar purge of shows by many of the networks across the board. Many of the members of both guilds no doubt consider this a shot across the warning bow, telling them what might happen if they did not get on board. This time, however, I am not sure if this is the case or if it is a measure of the continued financial shakiness of so many services. Again I’m going to use ABC as a prime example.
Those of you who have followed my blog are aware that I have increasingly believed that at the start of this decade ABC has been becoming the major source for great network TV. This has been confirmed by the recent HCA TV awards, which in their awards for broadcast television have been particularly generous to ABC over the other four major networks. This year ABC again led all the major networks.
Just prior to this ABC announced the cancellation of three of its most acclaimed dramas, two of them from the 2022–2023 season: Alaska Daily and The Company You Keep. Alaska Daily had received several award nominations this year, including Best Broadcast Drama for the HCA. Company You Keep received several nominations, including Best Actor for Milo Ventimiglia. The other was Big Sky which was among the nominated shows in the inaugural year of the HCA, including a nomination for Best Drama.
Now to be clear all three series, while highly acclaimed, had been struggling for ratings. Big Sky had been on the bubble before it had been renewed in Season 2 and had come back for a far shorter third season before it left the airwaves this January. Alaska Daily never performed particularly well in the ratings (ABC took a long time before bringing it back from its winter hiatus) The Company You Keep was a more borderline case to be sure, but the fact that it was having trouble keeping an audience after American Idol was never a good sign.
So I can not say with any degree of certainty whether ABC chose to cancel these critically beloved series in order to make its ledger look better or whether the reality of network TV made it untenable to keep this very marginal hits on the air any longer. I’m sure the guilds are certain it’s the former, but not long before the strike 9–1–1 Fox’s most successful drama was cancelled and picked up by ABC — because it was not making a profit for the network. That is not the sign of a health industry.
Slightly more troubling was the fate of The Wonder Years. When it debuted in the fall of 2021 it became one of the critically acclaimed series in a long time for ABC, particularly when it came to comedy. It was nominated for many awards across the board and won a Peabody. The network had renewed it for a second season in the winter of 2021.
However when the 2022–2023 season began, The Wonder Years was not on the fall schedule, nor did it show up in the winter of 2023. Indeed, it didn’t premiere until this June and only aired 10 episodes. In the past, a network airing a series in the summertime had been the kiss of death but over the last several year that has changed quite dramatically. Nevertheless, last week ABC announced quietly that the show had been cancelled.
I find the treatment of the series impossible to fathom. Yes from the moment it was announced that ABC was rebooted the beloved series with an African-American family there was the typical backlash from certain quarters and their was a scandal involving producer Fred Savage early in 2022. None of this changes the fact that was by far one of the best series of the decade so far and that ABC’s treatment of it seems to show incredibly bad faith. I’m not inclined to consider this the kind of punitive measure that was done in 2007–2008 — no one could have foreseen the strike last spring — but the only reason I can see it being cancelled is due to the same economic factors that are plaguing network television across the board.
In recent weeks cancellations of series that had been previously renewed for another season such as A League of their Own and Peripheral have been called punitive measures by the studios by SAG-AFTRA and the WGA. That these actions had been going on well before the strike began (I remember series such as Starz Dangerous Liaisons being cancelled after they had been renewed for a second season) will doubtless to little to change the minds of those on the picket line. Many more will argue that this is because creative work is being monitored by bean counters who do not appreciate their art.
I think the truth has to do far more with the economic state of Hollywood as a whole. By this point in my work in this blog I’ve driven my argument into the ground and you either believe it or you don’t. So for now I’ll close on this: it is now in the economic interests of both the artists and the studios to come back to work and I think all sides know it, even if they won’t publicly admit it. Whatever the WGA and SAG-AFTRA end up getting will inevitably be less than they think they deserve and I have little doubt there will be rancor on both sides. That said, if series you end up working on end up getting cancelled — and I’m speaking in particular to those of you who work on network TV — don’t necessarily believe its punishment. The ground you walk on has been shaky for a while and the last several months have done nothing to shore it up.