Strike: In the end, fans will follow the writers to the edge of the universe. Editorial By Tom McMeekin
I don't like the fact that the Hollywood writers' strike will probably shorten this season for most of my favorite shows. And I think the strike is one of the nails in the coffin of network TV as we know it. However, I'm a writer at heart (if not a professional screenwriter, at least, not yet), and I support the writers' decision to walk out.
The strike is a fully necessary and reasonable move. It is the writers who create the shows and characters we love, and they should be the first in line to profit from the collaborative work, not last. The network executives (represented in the contract negotiations by the confusingly-named "producers" association) rarely do anything but line their pockets and stand in the way of the storytelling. They consistently defy logic and determine "success" with outdated measures.
The main issue presented in the media is how residuals from DVDs and new media such as internet downloads will be paid. Currently, the writers get barely pennies from DVDs (a formula set back in the days when VHS tapes were in style, syndication is where shows made all their money, and the release of full seasons and series for purchase on any format was unheard of) and nothing from new media. DVDs, downloads, and streaming video will soon account for the majority of revenue in the business, so now is the time writers must rightfully stand up and demand changes to the system.
Any strike will cost millions, if not billions. Other workers are already losing jobs from the shows that have stopped production. Yes, the strike will take its toll on them and the writers, for now. But the writers need to be strong and unwavering in their demands, because down the road, it is networks that will suffer the most. The golden age of the studio system is over; independent film and serials are now much cheaper and more possible to produce. Also, when the industry does return to work, the old adage "content is king" will still apply.
Fans don't watch a show religiously because it's on ABC or CBS, they watch it because it's created by Bryan Fuller or Joss Whedon. People don't see the latest movie from New Line or Miramax, they see it because they want to see the story or the work of the writer / director / actors. Nobody cares who the "producers" are in the original sense, meaning who is paying for it. They care who the "producers" are in the sense of whose vision it is, and that's most often the writers'.
Fans have already embraced the writers' fight, starting campaigns to send pencils to media tycoons and creating Web sites including myspace.com/support_the_writers. If the writers end up forsaking networks (or vice versa) for books, comics, YouTube-style viral videos, or you name it, the fans will follow. There may be a few people who will buy into the drivel (not even "reality TV", most of which is scripted anyway) that Hollywood will come up with sans good writers. Overall, the fans aren't going to keep watching the big three networks just because they've been around since the dawn of color TV.
So, what effects will the strike have on television and film in the alternative reality genres?
The film industry has enough scripts stockpiled to last until space and time travel is invented. The main problem is that many of them are just bad and there's no one to do the polishing that happens to most stories while the films are being shot. It'll take longer than usual for the next installments of franchises like Harry Potter to be finished, but they're probably not in any danger.
Television is not as lucky, and the strike will be immediately noticed by fans of dramatic shows after the holidays. Most affected so far have been late-night shows and other things written shortly before they air. Alternative reality genre shows tend to work far enough ahead and have enough scheduled preemptions for holidays and specials that it'll be January before we run out of new episodes, and even that could probably be avoided if writers return to work in December.
When shows do return, they'll see a significant drop in ratings. Even a month off could mean millions of viewers lost, like Lost and Heroes have proven with their midseason hiatuses before. It'll be only if there's a strike for 6 months to a year that this effect could be counteracted, by the effects that a dearth of quality programming and the anticipation of what will happen next will have.
I also wouldn't be surprised to see networks turn around and cancel many shows as soon as their currently-taped runs are up. Virtually no shows have been canceled because the industry was poised for the lack of available scripted programs during a strike. However, regardless of how many scripts have been ordered, while the strike is on no more episodes will be possible. The networks may decide to cut their losses and focus on developing new shows rather than waiting for ones that had average or poor ratings so far and have no guarantees they'll even do that well in a few months. The ones they'll keep are the ones that have done well in reruns so far. In the meantime, more foreign-produced shows from Canada and England will see the light of day on the networks instead of cable stations (which are often owned by the same conglomerates). Assuming there's no odd licensing issues, Doctor Who could air on NBC instead of SciFi.
If the strike lasts into the spring, the traditional timetable for creating new shows will go out the window—this time, forever. If next fall's pilots don't get written and made on time, I predict the industry will begin following a year-round schedule. It is already happening with cable shows running in summer and popular series like Lost and 24 being held off until midseason. I think it's also likely that having a shorter season this year and having shows like Kyle XY split their seasons into two parts could make the networks follow the British TV custom of having shorter, more widely-spaced runs. Order a ten-episode series, and if it does well, maybe order another ten episodes in a couple years. It's a logical response to the volatile industry. Cable is already beginning to do that.
Long-term, a strike will help along a resurgence of popularity in live theater. The casts of Saturday Night Live and 30 Rock have already performed benefits to aid the other workers who have been laid off as a result of the strike. While comedy and realistic drama are easier to pull off live than space operas, there is a history of special effects in the theatrical genre of melodrama—where live animals, water, and trapdoors could be found. Musical sci-fi or horror could pick up (think Wicked and Sweeny Todd, which ironically is also soon to hit movie theaters).
People will also turn to books, particularly graphic novels (in print, like the recent continuation of Buffy the Vampire Slayer, and on the web, like the side-story for Heroes). As it's not script writing, I would say it's possible some of the same showrunners could continue the stories or start new series, much the way many people who are actor/writers or producer/writers may be obligated to continue working the non-writing portion of their job.
My guess is that the strike will last until January or February. I don't think the writers will back down, and I don't think the networks are smart enough to give in right away in the upcoming negotiations. Nor do I think they're foolish enough to ignore the problem beyond the early spring. However, I wouldn't be surprised if they use the opportunity to prove themselves better at being stupid than even I imagine.
Tom McMeekin is a writer and artist from Pennsylvania and a recent graduate of Clarion University. His Web site is TomMcMeekin.com.