It may have given us Dr. Horrible's Sing-Along Blog, but the 2007-08 writers' strike was nothing to sing about.
The television world came to a screeching halt in the fall of 2007 when the members of the Writers Guild of America reached an impasse in contract negotiations with the Alliance of Motion Picture and Television Producers and voted to strike over several issues of contention, including compensation for content written for or distributed by emerging digital technology, like the internet. [Insert 2007 joke here.]
Fast-forward nearly a decade and we're again on the brink of another Writers Guild of America strike as union members negotiate a new contract, one that will increase compensation across the board but also address and cover the constantly changing and expanding world of TV, including how writers are paid now that shorter seasons are becoming the norm. The current contract expires on May 1, and if a new deal that both sides can agree to isn't reached by then, the WGA will likely move forward with the strike on May 2.
But what does all of this mean for television fans in the era of Peak TV? Although the situation in 2007 is not identical to the one that exists today in 2017, it's important to know how a strike can affect the world of TV. Let's take a look back at what transpired nearly a decade ago.
Short seasons, cancellations and a reliance on reality TV
When the unions went on strike in the fall of 2007, nearly every single scripted program was forced to halt or postpone production in the middle of the TV season, which resulted in a number of shortened seasons and even some unfortunate cancellations. Late night TV immediately entered reruns — though some, like Late Night With Conan O'Brien, would return sans writers before the strike ended in order to keep non-writers employed — while a reliance on reality TV increased as networks attempted to fill airtime previously filled by scripted programs.
On CBS, the first and only winter season of Big Brother debuted in February 2008. The network saw a decrease in viewership when compared to earlier editions of the popular summer program, while many fans found the season rushed and the cast unlikable.
Although some scripted shows would eventually come to benefit from the strike in unpredictable ways (more on that in a bit), many more were irreparably damaged by the postponement. Bryan Fuller's acclaimed Pushing Daisies, which completed just nine of its original 22-episode order for Season 1 before the strike, was off the air for 10 months by the time new episodes resumed airing for Season 2. Although nearly 13 million viewers watched the pilot the year before and Kristin Chenoweth eventually took home the Emmy for Best Supporting Actress in a Comedy in 2009, the show's ratings plummeted during its second season and the series ultimately never recovered.
Now, with a whimsical premise involving a lonely pie maker (Lee Pace) moonlighting as a detective because of his unnatural ability to revive the dead for a short time with just one touch, it's difficult to say whether or not Pushing Daisies would have lived to see a third season — something that only one of Fuller's incredible but creatively ambitious series, NBC's macabre Hannibal, has done yet — but given the momentum of the show's beloved first season and the Emmy love bestowed upon it, it's also nearly impossible to interpret the show's demise as anything but the result of the postponement caused by the strike.
Elsewhere, some shows were canceled or never received proper endings. For instance, the long-running WB-turned-CW comedy Girlfriends ended without a proper series finale. Prior to the strike, the show's eighth season was announced to be the final season, but the writers were never able to return to craft a proper ending. Meanwhile, shortened seasons hurt many young shows, like NBC's perennial bubble show Chuck and The CW's lovable Reaper.
But course correcting likely did change some of your favorite shows for the better
Despite the widespread damage done across television, a few good things did eventually come out of the 2007-08 Writers' Strike. On cable, Breaking Bad's freshman run was cut from nine episodes to seven, and although series creator Vince Gilligan would eventually say he and the writers knew from the second episode of the series that the show's moral compass Jesse Pinkman, played by fan favorite and three-time Emmy winner Aaron Paul, would not be killed off as originally intended, he also would cite the strike and the shortened season as confirming his decision to let Jesse live.
Over on the newly-formed CW, the strike affected Supernatural's third season by forcing the writers to focus on the show's greater mythology and the plot to save Dean (Jensen Ackles) — who had made a deal to save Sam (Jared Padalecki) and was thus destined to be dragged to hell — sooner than originally planned. Series creator Eric Kripke revealed the strike forced him to move up the story's overall timeline and ultimately didn't leave enough time to explore everything he had planned, including Sam's abilities and more stand-alone episodes. However, the shorter season made a tight story also a pretty great story. And also, we still got "Mystery Spot," so there's very little reason to complain.
Elsewhere, some shows made lemonade out of lemons and were able to reboot after lackluster seasons or storylines, including NBC's beloved Friday Night Lights. Following a stellar debut season, the show's ill-conceived murder plot involving Landry (Jesse Plemons) and Tyra (Adrianne Palicki) that kicked off the controversial second season was effectively — and thankfully — jettisoned thanks to the show's shortened season of just 15 episodes.
When the series returned for Season 3 the following year, the murder storyline — which incidentally kicked off Plemons' habit of playing a murderer on screen — it was a return to form for the acclaimed drama, which would go on to run for five seasons thanks to a deal with DirecTV. Thankfully the most controversial element of the show's final three seasons was just Riggins' decision to take the fall for his brother's chop shop because Taylor Kitsch wanted a movie career.
It also created an outlet for creative freedom
A strike doesn't just affect writers of course, and the effects of the 2007-08 strike extended across television and beyond; being out of work led Buffy the Vampire Slayer creator Joss Whedon to create the ahead-of-its-time comedy-musical Dr. Horrible's Sing-Along Blog. Written by Whedon, his brothers Jed and Zack, and Jed's now-wife Maurissa Tancharoen, Dr. Horrible was a three-act musical completely funded by Whedon and produced solely for the internet. That might not sound terribly impressive today in 2017, but it was unheard of in 2007.
Starring Neil Patrick Harris as the titular wannabe super-villain and Whedon favorite Nathan Fillion as his hilarious nemesis Captain Hammer, the musical was written and filmed during the Writers' Strike because, perhaps unsurprisingly, Whedon grew tired and frustrated by the lack of progress during the strike and wanted to create a professional piece of entertainment specifically for the internet. The three-act, 45-minute Dr. Horrible was released in July 2008, several months after the strike ended. It pretty much broke the internet.
What this means today
If we look to the 2007-08 strike in comparison to where we stand today, the timing is obviously different — spring versus fall — which means if a strike happens, network shows will likely not bear the full brunt of the strike, with late-night, streaming, off-schedule or cable programming faring the worst initially. Series with scripts already in the can will be able to continue production until the well of scripts runs dry, but depending on how everything shakes out in the coming days, weeks or even months, there does exist a possible scenario in which the fall TV season is affected.
Despite the effects of the 07-08 strike on some of our favorite shows, we cannot assume that anything positive — beyond the WGA and the AMPTP finally agreeing on terms and the writers earning the pay they rightfully deserve — will come from a strike. This situation is no one's first choice, and the potential effects are varied and widespread. But with a strike being a very real possibility next week, everyone should be prepared for what's to come.