by Howie Cockrill
Following up on "Writers' Strike Part 1," in which I discussed the basic "who" and "what" of the current strike by the WGA against the AMPTP - this article is geared toward giving some background information to understand where the current dispute comes from.
The topics are:
- Timeline - WGA and AMPTP
- 1960 WGA Strike
- 1988 WGA Strike
Patrick Goldstein of the L.A. Times may have said it best:
“Everyone in this nasty labor dispute has profound insecurity about the future, an attitude deeply rooted in industry history.”
So what is this industry history? Let’s begin with a quick timeline:
1912: A group of book/magazine authors and also dramatists form the Authors’ League of America (ALA).
1921: The ALA splits into 2 groups – the Dramatists Guild of America for radio/stage drama writers and the Authors Guild for book/magazine authors.
Also, the Screen Writers Guild is formed, but it is not particularly assertive until the labor movement of the 1930s.
1924: The Association of Motion Picture Producers is formed to represent the film industry to the public and the government, and later begins negotiating on behalf of its members.
1933: The ALA and SWG join forces, and by 1942 – the ALA/SWG is representing screen writers in collective bargaining agreements.
1948: The Television Writers Group of the ALA and the Television Writers of America (a separate organization) begin repping television writers.
1951: The ALA form the Writers’ Guild of America – East and West to consolidate the interests of film, television and radio writers into one bifurcated guild.
1960: The WGA goes on strike against the Association of Motion Picture Producers for 21 weeks.
1964: The Association of Motion Picture Producers change its name to the Association of Motion Picture and Television Producers.
1975: Paramount and Universal leave the Association and form the “Alliance.”
1982: The Alliance and the Association merg to form what is now the AMPTP.
1985: The WGA stages a walk-out on the AMPTP lasting 2 weeks
1988: The WGA goes on strike against the AMPTP for 22 weeks.
2007: The WGA goes on strike against the AMPTP starting in November.
THE 1960 STRIKE
The 1960 WGA strike against the Association of Motion Picture Producers (AMPP) lasted 20 weeks and 6 days – one week less than the longest WGA strike in 1988.
The WGA was striking over the writers’ right to receive revenue for the sale and license of movies to television.
Eventually, the studios agreed to pay:
- $600,000 to the writers’ pension and health benefits funds
- 5% of studio income from pre-1960 movies on television
- 2% of studio income from post-1960 movies on television
Additionally, writers for film and television got a pay bump
in their minimum rates over the subsequent 4 years.
Finally, and perhaps most significantly, writers got a 4% royalty on all re-runs forever. Prior to this, writers received 140% of their minimum rate for the first 5 domestic re-runs.
THE 1988 STRIKE
The 1988 strike by the WGA against the AMPTP lasted for 21 weeks and 6 days. Some estimate that the total economic loss to the industry was $500 million.
The primary issue in 1988 once again revolved around “residuals,” or payments to writers for re-runs.
The AMPTP wanted to scale back residuals on one-hour programs syndicated in the U.S., claiming that syndication prices were dropping.
Under the pre-1988 contract, writers received a fixed residual on episodes of one-hours series like “Murder, She Wrote” or “Hunter” when the episodes were sold to independent TV stations.
The WGA did not want to give up any residuals on U.S. syndications, and in fact wanted a larger residual on foreign market re-runs.
Additionally, and perhaps most related to the 2007-08 strike, there was a dispute regarding residuals for the sale of movies on VHS.
New seasons slated to begin in the fall were postponed until the winter.
It is commonly believed that the industry was unable to recapture as much as 10% of its viewership after the strike.
Interestingly, then as now, some of the first television shows to break ranks and return sans writers were the late night shows. In 1988 it was Carson and Letterman. In 2008 it was Leno.
Also parallel is the role of soap operas, which never left the air and continued to run with non-guild writers.
Some shows, like “Kate & Allie” and “Moonlighting” were cancelled after they could not reinvigorate their viewership after the strike.
The studios filled in the gaps in a number of ways.
Some old shows, like “Mission: Impossible” were revamped based on old scripts.
Some TV specials like “Unsolved Mysteries” were turned into series, unscripted “reality” programming like “Cops” became more widely used, and TV specials and movies were aired as much as possible.
Some independent producers cut interim deals with the WGA, allowing production for new shows like “Roseanne” to move forward.
As for film, a handful of writers were able to hand their scripts in literally hours before the strike began. Once the strike was underway, British writers were more in demand as they took over for their American counterparts in films such as “Batman.”
Significantly, the 1988 strike lasted through the spring (when production is coming to a close) and summer (when re-runs prevail), which meant the protracted negotiations were not as debilitating as they could have been if, say, they had begun in November like the current strike.
Eventually, as dissent amongst the writers grew, both sides came to an agreement.
The AMPTP revised the foreign residuals formula to give writers the option of a maximum of $4,400 for a one-hour show or 1.2% of the producer’s foreign sales.
The WGA agreed to a cut in residuals for domestically syndicated one-hour programs.
The writers of original screen plays and TV movies also received greater creative control over their content.
The WGA agreed to ignore the first 80% of revenue from VHS, under the notion that (a) the VHS market was unproven; (b) VHS manufacture costs were high; and (c) the deal could be renegotiated later.
The WGA agreed to accept 1.2% of the remaining 20% of VHS revenue, which works out to about 2.4 cents out of a $20 sale.
Notably, this formula for VHS residuals has not been changed since 1988 and now applies to DVDs.
One of the most pronounced results of the strike was that cable became much more popular.
Cable programming relied much less heavily on new scripts, and was able to continue during and after the strike relatively unscathed.
In fact, according to Nielsen Media Research – while prime-time ratings for the 3 major networks fell 4.6% between the fall of 1987 and the fall of 1988, cable ratings rose 25.5% during the same period.
Cable has continued to rise in viewership ever since, and with the advent on online video, current delays in network programming could have a significantly bigger impact than in 1988.