The 2007 Writers Strike Changed Everything. Will the 2023 One Do the Same?

Photo of Hollywood Sign c 1991. The WGA is on strike for the first time since 2007. But what is the writers strike? And how does AI play a role?

It’s been 15 years since the 2007 writers strike, and a lot has changed since then. For 100 days, members of the Writers Guild of America (WGA) brought Hollywood to a grinding halt. Now, the 2023 writers strike is on. But why? And when will the writers strike end?

These days, we’re spoiled for choice when it comes to streaming platforms. But when the 2007 writers strike began, Netflix wasn’t the global streaming platform it is today. Rather, it was more like a video store by mail. As for the other streaming platforms? Most of them didn’t exist. Apple had only just launched the very first iPhone, and when it came to artificial intelligence, A.I. Artificial Intelligence was a movie written and directed by real-life person Steven Spielberg, rather than ChatGPT.

Suffice it to say, everything has changed, and writers are striking once again. But what is the writers strike all about? Why are they striking? What makes the 2023 writers strike different from 2007? And how does AI come into it? Here’s everything we know.

What Is the Writers Strike?

Recently, the Writers Guild of America (WGA) announced that its nearly 12,000 members would be going on strike. The WGA Negotiating Committee had spent six weeks in talks with Alliance of Motion Picture and Television Producers (AMPTP). Essentially, the AMPTP’s role in this is to bargain with the WGA on behalf of all the film studios and giant streamers you know and love. When these negotiations failed, the WGA called for the 2023 writers strike to begin.

In a statement shared to Vanity Fair, the WGA noted that the negotiating committee “began this process intent on making a fair deal” for writers and studios alike, but that “the studios’ responses have been wholly insufficient given the existential crisis writers are facing”.

The WGA statement noted that the studios had “created a gig economy inside a union workforce”, which was forcing writers to pick up several jobs to make ends meet.

They added: “their immovable stance in this negotiation has betrayed a commitment to further devaluing the profession of writing.”

The Alliance of Motion Picture and Television Producers (AMPTP)’s Stance

The cost of living crisis, general economic climate and demand from shareholders to see studios and streaming platforms become profitable are the main reasons behind the breakdown in negotiations between the AMPTP and the WGA.

In a statement, the AMPTP said that it had “presented a comprehensive package proposal to the Guild … which included generous increases in compensation for writers as well as improvements in streaming residuals”.

The statement continued: “The AMPTP also indicated to the WGA that it is prepared to improve that offer, but was unwilling to do so because of the magnitude of other proposals still on the table that the Guild continues to insist upon.”

While the AMPTP statement insisted that the companies it represents “remain united in their desire to reach a deal that is mutually beneficial to writers” as well as the industry, they also noted several sticking points that had led to the breakdown in negotiations.

In particular, “Guild proposals that would require a company to staff a show with a certain number of writers for a specified period of time, whether needed or not,” was a primary concern.

Of the AMPTP’s response, Matthew Belloni — an entertainment lawyer and former editor of The Hollywood Reporter, wrote for Puck News:

“It’s now pretty clear that the AMPTP strategy is to let the writers stomp their feet on the sidewalks and on social media for a couple months, throw some tantalising concessions at the DGA (Directors Guild of America) and SAG-AFTRA (Screen Actors Guild), and then use those deals as a cudgel to beat the writers into submission sometime in July.

“The problem, of course, is that Hollander and his SAG-AFTRA counterpart Duncan Crabtree-Ireland know this is the strategy — in part because picking off the DGA is exactly what the studios did 15 years ago.”

The 2007 Writers Strike Explained

So what happened 15 years ago, exactly? The 2007-2008 Writers Guild of America (WGA) strike began on November 5, 2007 and lasted 100 days, ending on February 12, 2008. In a piece published in 2018, The Hollywood Reporter called it the “100 Days That Changed Hollywood”.

The primary issue that led to the 2007 writers strike was the demand by the WGA for increased compensation for writers in the digital age. At the time, streaming services were still in their early stages, and the writers were concerned that they would not be fairly compensated for their work on these platforms. With the boom in home media, the WGA also sought better terms for the reuse of their work in DVDs and other media.

The Impact of the 2007 Writers Strike

The strike caused widespread disruption to the television and film industry, with production on many popular TV shows coming to a halt. Late-night talk shows were particularly hard hit, with hosts like David Letterman and Jay Leno forced to go off the air for several months. As the strike continued, late night shows returned — without the writers — which led to scenes like Conan O’Brien seeing how long he could spin his wedding ring, just to fill airtime.

The games and jokes were intentional, and designed to point out the necessity of writers to the show. When O’Brien returned to the air, he made a statement supporting the WGA, and paid his writers out of his own pocket for the duration of the strike.

The strike also had a significant impact on the economy, with estimates suggesting that it cost the entertainment industry around $2.5 billion in lost revenue. Many writers also suffered financial hardship, as they were unable to work for the duration of the strike.

The strike ultimately ended when a new agreement was reached between the WGA and the AMPTP, which provided for increased compensation for writers in the digital age, as well as improved terms for reuse of their work in new media.

Debunking the Myths of the 2007 Writers Strike

As the 2023 writers strike continues, many people have been recounting their memories of the 2007 strike on social media. But of course, memory and fact are two separate things, and there are a lot of myths about the 2007 writers strike floating around.

The main myths are that the 2007 writers strike “ruined” several television shows that were popular at the time, like Heroes, or led to a beloved show’s early cancellation, like Pushing Daisies.

Longtime entertainment writer and critic Emily St. James recently debunked several of these myths in a Twitter thread subtitled: “No, all your favourite shows aren’t going to get worse”.

St. James’ thread covers the impact of the strike on several specific shows, but as she concludes: “The 2007-08 strike didn’t uniformly impact shows. For the most part, the shows on good trajectories stayed on them and vice versa.”

However, she did concede that “by far the most deleterious effect on young shows at that time was that a bunch of shows that might have gotten time to build more of an audience suddenly had to deal with long hiatuses”. Many of these shows, she noted, were either cancelled or “never re-found their viewers”.

Did the 2007 Writers Strike Create a Reality TV Boom?

Another popular myth is that the 2007 writers strike led to the boom in reality television that is on all of our screens, all the time now.

On the one hand, there is a grain of truth to this, because, as Emily St. James wrote for Vanity Fair, “Every time there’s a major entertainment union strike, TV networks grab the cheapest programming they can find and slap it on the air”.

However, there’s also plenty of evidence to dispute this enduring myth. For example, Survivor premiered in 2000, long before the 2007 writers strike, and was such a ratings hit for CBS that it’s often cited as one of the reasons the cast of Friends was paid so much per episode in the later seasons. NBC, the home of Friends, had nothing else in its lineup that could take on the reality mega-hit, and paid the cast top-dollar to return for the later seasons.

The fact is, there were plenty of reality television shows on the air before the writers strike, and the format was already gaining momentum. The 100-day writers strike between 2007 and 2008 did not create the behemoth that is reality television in 2023.

What’s Different About the 2023 Writers Strike

When writers went on strike in 2007, viewers felt the impact quickly. Late night shows went off the air, and their favourite network sitcoms returned with shorter seasons. When it comes to the 2023 writers strike, everything is different, because the way we consume media is different.

For one, viewers are spoiled for choice these days. Every streaming platform has its own stockpile of content, and there are plenty of platforms to choose from. Thus, it’s possible streamers will be able to keep up the façade of new content for months.

Meanwhile, the number of people who watch network shows live is much smaller these days. With so many people catching up on shows once they hit their preferred streaming service, the number of people who will notice the impact quickly is nowhere near what it was in 2007.

On the other hand, there is a counter-argument to the idea that streaming services will be able to wait the writers out indefinitely.

On Puck News, Matthew Belloni wrote: “Someone smart made a compelling argument to me yesterday that Netflix is actually not as well-prepared as many believe — that, because the service has trained its members to expect the firehose of new scripted originals every week, those Netflix customers will notice even a small strike slowdown more quickly than subscribers to other services, and they will cancel”.

Late Night TV Vs Podcasts

In 2007, people tuned into late night TV to catch up on news and current affairs. These days? Not so much. Ratings for late night shows have been in decline for years. Just last year, writer Bill Carter declared simply: “Late-night television’s golden age is over”.

Many people now prefer podcasts, which they can listen to at their own convenience. Notably, the only podcasts affected by the current writers strike are fiction podcasts. This means it will be business as usual for news and entertainment podcasts, even if the hosts are members of the WGA. Where Conan O’Brien was once left spinning his wedding ring on late night television to fill air time, he can, under the current WGA rules, still continue to host his podcast, Conan O’Brien Needs a Friend.

The Role of AI In the Writers Strike

One major issue of the 2023 writers strike is the use of AI like ChatGPT and Bard in screenwriting.

In the WGA’s negotiations with AMPTP, one of their main proposals was that they “Regulate use of artificial intelligence on MBA-covered projects: AI can’t write or rewrite literary material; can’t be used as source material; and MBA-covered material can’t be used to train AI.”

The AMPTP rejected this proposal, offering instead to hold “annual meetings to discuss advancements in technology”.

“The challenge is we want to make sure that these technologies are tools used by writers and not tools used to replace writers,” writer John August — who is also a member of the WGA’s 2023 negotiating committee — told The Hollywood Reporter.

“The worry is that down the road you can see some producer or executive trying to use one of these tools to do a job that a writer really needs to be doing.”

In the same article, writer Vinnie Wilhelm called the issue of AI in scriptwriting “existential” for writers.

“We need to have a seat at the table,” Wilhelm said. “You can easily see the job becoming polishing AI scripts. It fits neatly into what companies have been doing — turning everything they can into gig work.”

ChatGPT and AI are still in their infancy. Thus, much of the debate around AI and screenwriting is hypothetical. Writers are hoping to safeguard against a future which may become a moot point. But it has echoes of the 2007 writers strike.

When Will the Writers Strike End?

If you’ve gotten this far and found yourself wondering “but when will the writers strike end?”, you’re not alone. The answer, however, remains unclear.

This week, the New York Times reported that the strike could carry on for months. They noted that the strike may even impact the Emmy Awards, which are slated for September.

“The week has shown, I think, just how committed and fervent writers’ feelings are about all of this,” Chris Keyser, a chair of the WGA negotiating committee, said in a recent interview. “They’re going to stay out until something changes because they can’t afford not to.”

Want more entertainment news? Click here to read all our content, and check out the stories below:

Read more stories from The Latch and subscribe to our email newsletter.