How the Hollywood writers strike affects YOU

You may have heard snippets of news items about an impending Hollywood writers strike and didn’t let the magnitude of the situation sink in. Perhaps you were in denial. But I’m here to tell you that it is real, and that it will probably be disastrous.

How does seven nights a week of nothing but “American Idol” and “Dateline NBC” sound?!!

Here’s the lowdown on how the writers strike affects you, John and Jane Q. Public, in handy question-and-answer format.

Q: Who’s striking, and why?
A: It’s the Writers Guild of America (WGA) striking against the Alliance of Motion Picture and Television Producers (AMPTP). The WGA’s contract ended Nov. 1, and they were trying to negotiate some changes for the new contract. The AMPTP wouldn’t budge, the contract expired, and so a strike officially begins today.

The key issue is that the WGA feels writers deserve more residuals when movies and especially TV shows are sold on DVD. They also want a cut of money made from “new media” — the Internet, iTunes, cell phones, and so on.

The AMPTP says the new media situation is, well, too new to be able to tell how big a cut would be fair. As for DVD sales, which are not new, the AMPTP just doesn’t want to pay more than it’s already paying.

Q: Which movies and TV shows will this affect?
A: It will affect all movies, since all movies have writers (yes, even “The Game Plan”). The studios will have to use scripts that are already finished. However, since the process of making a movie is generally a couple years from screenplay to theatrical release, and since the studios have been stockpiling scripts in preparation for the strike, it will be a while before you notice a difference. Even then, all it will mean is fewer movies coming out, not no movies.

TV, though: That’s where the apocalypse is. All TV shows use WGA writers except for reality shows, game shows, news programs, and sports programs. Some of those do employ writers, but they don’t have to be union members.

Q: How soon will my stories be affected?
A: Daily programs like Letterman, Leno, “The Daily Show” and “The Colbert Report” will be affected immediately. As in, today. They have writing staffs that prepare material on a daily basis for that night’s program, and all those writers are on the picket line now.

Next in line will be daytime soap operas, which will run out of scripts in a couple weeks.

After that it’s the prime-time entertainment programs. Most shows have around six or eight episodes written, some of them already filmed or almost filmed. November should be business as usual, since it’s a sweeps month and the networks want to air new episodes. December tends to be rerun-heavy anyway.

In January, things will get tough. The networks will want to air some new shows — but they might also want to save the few episodes they have left for February, which is another sweeps month.

Also, half-hour comedies filmed in front of audiences will run out faster than no-audience sitcoms and hour-long dramas. Why? Because with studio sitcoms, the writers are usually on hand throughout the process, including the tapings, rewriting lines as they go. With the writers gone, that means they won’t be able to tape anything new, even for scripts that have technically already been written. Other shows can go ahead and film the scripts they have now, and any touching up that needs to be done can be done by producers and other staff members.

If the strike isn’t resolved by February, the networks simply won’t have new episodes to air. They’ll fill the schedule with reruns, reality shows, news programs, and whatever else they can scrape up. They might dig into the archives to find old, unused scripts that they can shoot. It won’t be pretty.

Q: Wait, why do the late-night talk shows need writers? Aren’t those hosts comedians?!
A: Well, yes. But even funny guys like Letterman and Conan can’t come up with an entire show’s worth of material every day all by themselves, and Leno hasn’t been able to be funny without writers in well over 15 years. The shows will stay off the air for a while, in solidarity with the striking writers. (The hosts tend to be WGA members, too, so they’ll want to support their brethren.) Then they’ll come back because there are other staff members who need paychecks — crew members, technicians, producers, etc. They’ll spend more time with the guests (since interviews don’t need writers) and less time on monologues and prepared comedy bits.

Jon Stewart and Stephen Colbert will probably stay in reruns, though, since their shows rely mainly on writing and couldn’t function if the focus were shifted to interviews.

Q: Does history teach us anything?
A: The last WGA strike was in 1988, and it lasted five months. However, that one went from April to August, which was mostly summer rerun season anyway.

The current strike is happening at a much worse time. The fall season has just started, and many fledgling shows are just developing their audiences. A months-long dearth of new episodes could kill their momentum.

Or consider a show like “Heroes,” which was huge last year but has been down in the ratings so far this year. Some viewers just might not bother to return to it when it finally comes back after the strike.

Q: Are there any rays of sunshine in all this darkness?
A: “Lost” and “24” were both planning to come back early in 2008 and run without stopping for 16 and 24 weeks straight, respectively. They might still be able to do that, since they started production around the same time that shows premiering in September did. The difference is that the other shows have been airing their episodes, while “Lost” and “24” have been saving them.

Q: Could the strike end soon?
A: Well, they’ve been negotiating since August, and they couldn’t come up with an agreement before Nov. 1, so I don’t know why they’d suddenly reach a compromise now.

Eventually, I suspect it will be the AMPTP that caves in. Public sentiment is mostly on the side of the WGA. Writers do deserve residuals when their work is resold in new formats, and no matter how much they complain that the opposite is true, studios are making gigantic profits. Plus, the AMPTP is the Goliath in this situation, as producers and other studio bigwigs tend to be wealthy fat cats, while most writers make very middle-class incomes.

Q: What can I do to occupy myself when the TV landscape becomes barren?
A: Hopefully you’ve been practicing what I call tube storage. Tube storage is where you choose a show you like — and then don’t watch it. Instead, save up the episodes on your DVR, to be viewed during times of famine. Usually, it’s for summertime. While others are suffering through reruns, you’re enjoying fresh, original programming. If you haven’t been saving up some TV to watch, now might be the time to start. You might have to ration your TV viewing the next couple months and save up as much as you can for the hard months of the strike.

I guess you could read a book, too, but whatever.