Watching New Girl or Homeland on your computer, mobile phone or Xbox has become so second nature to viewers, it's hard to recall that new technology once brought Hollywood to a standstill.
But how writers were paid for the digital distribution of their work was at the core of a 100-day work stoppage that put primetime TV viewers on a strict diet of reality and reruns in 2007 and early 2008. Daily Variety deputy editor Cynthia Littleton, who chronicles the battle and its lasting impact in her new book TV On Strike: Why Hollywood Went to War over the Internet (Syracuse University Press), says while many writers took a financial beating from the walkout, they had little choice but to take a hard line. The emergence of Netflix, Hulu and other services since the strike has proven online viewing is a robust business. We asked her about the strike's aftermath and what's ahead.
TV Guide Magazine: Are the digital residuals the writers fought for in the strike adding up to anything?
Cynthia Litteton: If you ask the average writer on the street, they'd admit no, they haven't seen such a great windfall. There are definitely people who say, "Why did we go on strike?" The balance of people who were on the street on the picket line believe it was a stance they had to take at that time to get their foot in the door, otherwise they could have stayed in the position they were — getting nothing or a fraction of a penny per digital download or stream.
TV Guide Magazine: So was it worth it to strike?
Littleton: "Worth it" is a hard thing to answer. It did cost people a lot of money. The real question is why did it have to get there? The writers taking a very militant line — that scared studio execs into their bunkers where they held an unreasonable line. The writers had to do what they did in 2007. Could they have handled the negotiations differently to avoid the strike? Yes, probably. Same thing with the studios; their talent relations were abysmal. In hindsight, the CEOs would agree there should have been a lot more outreach and private conversations about where the happy medium was.
TV Guide Magazine: Ever since the strike, it feels like the TV industry really made a big effort to control costs.
Littleton: It was the coincidental timing of the strike and our global economic meltdown — those two things really changed the nature of television production and the size of writing staffs on network primetime shows. The studios took the opening to do what they wanted to do for a long time — which is to radically reduce the size of writing staffs.
TV Guide Magazine: How long is that going to last?
Littleton: As is always the case, the costs have a way of creeping back up. Talent coming to the table with a lot of clout has the ability to say, "I want that ninth staff writer position." It's not a change forever and all time. But it was such a radical downsizing that it has had a lasting impact. It's only now with the licensing of shows to the Internet that studios are getting back to pre-strike spending levels.
TV Guide Magazine: Do you think the strike had an impact on programming in the years that followed?
Littleton: I think in a year or two after the strike, the broadcast networks were very nervous about spending a lot of money on shows where they weren't sure about where the back end was. What they told writers during the strike is: we can't possibly give you digital residuals because we don't know where the money is coming from. That was true. It's only started to take shape in the last couple of years. That led to some mundane choices on the broadcast network side. That probably benefited edgier outlets like AMC and FX.
TV Guide Magazine: Now that digital streaming is a big part of the business, are the Writers Guild and studios headed for another showdown?
Littleton: It will be interesting to see in the next round in 2014. Not a day goes by that we don't write about a big digital rights deal. It's definitely going to be on the table.
Subscribe to TV Guide Magazine now!