To an average person, a writers' strike doesn’t amount to much.
Looking back at some of our favourite TV shows, we might wonder why some of the episodes felt so rushed, different, or altogether awful. Or why some of the seasons had fewer episodes than the others.
But we don’t pay much heed to it, forgetting about it as soon as we move on to the next episode. But the cultural imprint of the writers' strike will always be permanently etched in the visual grammar of your favourite films and TV shows.
As around 10,500 members of the Writers Guild of America (WGA) walked away from their jobs, back in November 2007, after facing some major trouble in renegotiating new contracts with studios represented by the Alliance of Motion Picture and Television Producers (AMPTP), Hollywood saw an upheaval that was both cultural and economic.
As WGA members start picketing for fair contracts yet again, let’s see what happened the last time there was a writers' strike in the US.
Daniel Craig’s Second Bond Film
Quantum of Solace (2008) was one of the major big-budget films that were directly impacted by the writers' strike. The film was Daniel Craig’s second stint as the iconic spy James Bond and was widely considered his worst Bond film. It was ill-received by both critics and audiences alike, with many, including Craig, touting it as an example of the “second album syndrome”.
The strike caused an unfinished script to go into production, resulting in a movie that “kind of works,” in Craig’s own words. Series producer Barbara Broccoli, in the documentary Being James Bond, said:
“We basically started shooting without a script, which is never a good idea. But the script was turned in, and I remember the writer who turned the script in picked up his check, and then picked up his placard and stood outside the studio striking. We were kind of screwed, and we all had to muddle in and try and make the story work, and it wasn't really working that great. But I look back at the movie, and you know, it's still a good movie.”Barbara Broccoli, Producer
To quote Craig, the film was "f--ked".
How It Changed 'Breaking Bad'
As a result of the 2007-2008 writers' strike, the plot of one of television’s biggest TV shows was altered permanently. The first season of Breaking Bad was supposed to end with the death of Hank Schrader (played by Dean Norris), the brother-in-law to Walter White (played by Bryan Cranston), but the character was spared as the episodes weren’t written because of the ongoing strike. The character ended up staying alive for all the remaining seasons of the show.
One of the show’s primary characters, Jesse Pinkman (played by Aaron Paul), is also said to have been impacted by the strike. It is said that the showrunners were planning to kill him off by the end of the first season, but later decided to let it go.
For many fiction TV shows, however, the strike’s repercussions were reflected in their season length, which included Breaking Bad, The Office, 30 Rock, Lost, and Gossip Girl. With a generation that was used to having 21-22 episodes per season, having the season length slashed by almost half surely wouldn’t have sat well.
Talk Shows Fell Silent
Many late-night talk shows switched to re-runs of old episodes during the writers' strike as these shows rely almost entirely on their writers’ rooms. The Tonight Show with Jay Leno, Late Night with Conan O'Brien, Jimmy Kimmel Live!, Late Show with David Letterman, The Late Late Show with Craig Ferguson, The Daily Show with Jon Stewart, and Saturday Night Live aired re-runs till some of them had to go back on air, stating how the remainder of their staff would be fired if they didn’t.
One particularly positive impact was felt on television when talk show host Conan O’Brien continued to host his show and fill airtime, without any writers.
Late Night with Conan O’Brien remained out of production for two months due to the strike, but as he returned to television with a full beard (grown in solidarity with the writers on strike) and fully equipped with (unscripted) antics, the audience became privy to some of late-night television’s most creative and bizarre moments.
O’Brien’s creative process was in focus during the 2007-2008 writers' strike as he tried to entertain television audiences without “scabbing” – without violating the strike – by introducing new characters on the show, namely one Jordan Schlansky. The pair’s on-screen antics and deadpan conversations were unscripted and chaotic, bringing an untamed and unfiltered energy to the otherwise stiff late-night format.
Reality TV Boom
If you’re wondering what bolstered the rise of reality TV shows à la Keeping Up With The Kardashians, yes, it was the strike.
NBC’s The Apprentice had been seeing a steady decline in ratings till the year 2007 when NBC decided to launch the newer “Trumped” version. Starring the former United States president Donald Trump, the new show Celebrity Apprentice boosted the network’s ratings – it had a shorter turnaround time in terms of production, and most importantly, it did not require WGA writers (clearly).
Thus, studios spiralled into a cycle of production with these reality television shows that followed similar formats and were easy to dish out without the hassle of being embroiled in any production halts due to strikes. Along came the first season of Keeping Up With The Kardashians, and other shows such as American Idol, that benefitted from the dearth of competition from scripted shows.
The 100-day strike effectively changed Hollywood. But it had far-reaching repercussions. According to a research report by the Milken Institute, the 2007-2008 strike tipped California into a recession and caused a direct loss of $2.1 billion to the state’s economy.
Kevin Klowden, managing economist at the Milken Institute and one of the report’s authors, told Reuters, “The fact is that for California this was essentially a tipping point that pushed us (the state) into a recession.”
The strike ended in February 2008, with the writers accepting the terms set by the AMPTP that doubled residual payments for films and TV shows that were sold online.