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How the Writers Guild of America strike of 2007-2008 shaped TV today

Hollywood Writer's Guild of America 2007-2008 Strike

Strikes suck.

Teacher strikes, garbage strikes, and auto worker strikes disrupt daily life in a number of temporarily inconvenient ways, but when the writers of our favourite shows go on strike, it creates a narrative ripple effect that can last for years.

Plotlines get cut. Early draft scripts get used and drag down show quality. Shows go on hiatus, and some never make it back from the layoff.

All that happened in 2007, when the Writers Guild of America (WGA) went on strike and demanded a bigger piece of emerging digital revenues from the entertainment industry.

The WGA spent a total of 14 weeks writing picket signs instead of TV and movie scripts. The dispute was resolved in February 2008, but not before doing a whole lot of bad – and a little bit of good – for the television and film industries.

Tina Fey on strike for the Writers Guild of America

The bad: making Tina Fey go on strike.

But the return to work wasn’t as easy as flicking a switch to return everything to normal. The strike didn’t pause and then resume the television and film industries: it deformed them. In fact, if the writers strike hadn’t happened when it did – smack dab in the middle of the television season – some of your favourite shows would look much different today.

The WGA work stoppage was one of those strikes everyone saw coming from a mile away. In anticipation of it, film studios put together a list of 300 priority films to push through the writing process before the expected summer 2008 deadline.

But the WGA didn’t wait until the deadline; they pulled the trigger early, mere days after the contract expired in late October, to prevent the Alliance of Motion Picture and Television Producers (AMPTP) from getting their full stockpile of scripts.

That sent Hollywood producers into a panic. Projects were put on hold; others were rushed; still others were put on hiatus and, eventually, cancelled.

On the television side, the strike hit mid-season and effectively torpedoed a number of shows. Shows with winter start dates withered on the vine, while anything with a mid-season break ended up losing episodes.

To combat this, many of series cut storylines or crammed a full season’s worth of story arcs into too little space.

Some of TV’s biggest shows at the time were hit hard by the stoppage.

Kiefer Sutherland ended up spending a whole year not yelling at terrorists because season 7 of 24, then only a few episodes into filming, didn’t have a full season arc written yet. Instead, Fox hacked up what they had and created 24: Redemption, a semi-movie prequel setting up the final season’s debut in 2009.

Kiefer Sutherland in a dress on Letterman

In the interrim, Jack Bauer explored his feminine side.

Some major scripted shows escaped the effects of the strike altogether. Dexter, Mad Men, and The Wire all beat the deadline. Trey Parker and Matt Stone of South Park just gave everyone in the WGA the middle finger and wrote Canada on Strike to mock the situation. They weren’t members of the guild, and they didn’t care.

But that wasn’t the case at all for Seth McFarlane’s Family Guy. McFarlane’s last finished show before the strike was the two-part special “Stewie Kills Lois.” However, most of the voice work had been done for the as yet incomplete following three episodes, so – with McFarlane on the picket lines – Fox went ahead and produced those three shows without the creator’s approval.

Most daytime soap operas avoided repercussions, either because their crack writing teams had a stockpile of stories to draw on, or because writing a soap opera season is as easy as juggling the names from last season’s scripts in an unrecognizable way. Whatever the case, The Bold and the Beautiful, Days of Our Lives, and other well-established soaps had no trouble whatsoever with the strike.

A handful of soaps, determined to keep up with the other ones, used scab writers to stay with the pack. The Young and the Restless, General Hospital, As the World Turns, and One Life to Live all kept writing scripts despite the strike. Power Rangers: Jungle Fury also ignored the strike, and was the only non-soap show to do so.

Power Rangers Jungle Fury

The show must go on.

Serialized shows had some recourse in the face of the strike, but for late night live fare, there was no choice but to go dark. Jay Leno, Jon Stewart, Stephen Colbert, David Letterman and the rest of their ilk were left without scriptwriters and thus, without shows to run.

Many series absolutely slammed by the strike, and resorted to cramming all their plotlines into as little space as possible in order to get their seasons on air.

Remember the WTF-filled season 4 of Battlestar Galactica?

Of course you do.

Starbuck’s inexplicable return, the Cylon Final Five, Lee Adama in a fat suit and the rediscovery of Earth had all been planned as longer storylines for the series, but ended up sandwiched together because of the looming strike. The writers even wrote a downer mid-season finale as a potential series ender in case the show didn’t survive the strike. You may remember it: it’s the one where they find a totally devastated Earth.

Battlestar Galactica Gaius Baltar, Starbuck and Tigh on Earth

Frack Earth, and frack you, fans.

Turns out that was the show writers’ attempt to create a closure point in case they couldn’t return to finish the series.

The show Heroes also suffered tremendously. After a critically-acclaimed first season, the series fell on its face in the second go around, in large part due to the strike, but also due to some miscalculations by show creator Tim Kring. Kring admitted to bringing the show along too slowly, and that, combined with a butchered season 2 that saw only 11 of a planned 24 episodes produced, inevitably derailed the series and kept it from ever achieving its early potential.

But it wasn’t all bad. Jesse Pinkman, the junkie turned heart and soul of Breaking Bad, was originally going to be killed off in episode 9 of the first season.

Instead, the strike halted production at episode 7 and creator Vince Gilligan rethought his plans based on actor Aaron Paul’s performance. Paul went on to win two Primetime Emmys for his work on the series in 2010 and 2012 and his character ended up becoming the good guy alongside Bryan Cranston’s depsicable Walter White. With the series set to wrap up later this year, it’s hard to imagine it without Jesse’s yin to Walter’s yang.

Breaking Bad Jesse Pinkman Aaron Paul

TV was the most heavily impacted industry, but film also took a hit.

The much-maligned James Bond script Quantam of Solace reportedly finished a bare bones draft on the eve of the strike, but it was far from a solid thing. Daniel Craig admits to reworking the script alongside director Marc Forster during filming because it was so muddled. The film was pan for its convoluted plot (something about water?) but, in his own defense, Craig reminded everyone “a writer I am not.”

The second Transformers movie Transformers: Revenge of the Fallen also suffered from the strike. Though not exactly Citizen Kane to begin with, the strike took the second draft of the film out of the hands of writers Roberto Orci and Alex Kurtzman and put in the in hands of Michael Bay, who felt the need to add “humour” to it. By humour, he meant the incredibly racist, jive-talking Skids and Mudflap, the twin Autobots with exaggerated African-American features and offensive, stereotypcial rap-inspired dialogue.

“I purely did it for kids,” said Bay. “Young kids love these robots, because it makes it more accessible to them.”

Skids and Mudflap Autobots from Transformers: Revenge of the Fallen

Skids and Mudflap from Michael Bay’s Transformers: Revenge of the Blackface.

While traditional television fare suffered, unscripted reality shows and gameshows like The Price is Right, Big Brother and The Amazing Race made out like gangbusters. With low production costs and no writing to worry about, many networks discovered they could fill their programming schedules expensively by financing reality shows based on just about anything. TLC, Discovery and the History Channel all jumped on board, and they haven’t looked back.

In fact, reality television wouldn’t be where it is today if not for the WGA strike.

So you can thank the strike for Honey Boo Boo, too.

After all, who needs a well-written show when you can watch Honey Boo Boo’s Mama June sneeze for a minute straight?

Honey Boo Boo Child's Mother
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