If you have been following my articles since the re-launch of the Hubbub, you know that I am a fan and follower of media, media entertainment, and the media business. Over the past two months I have highlight ten shows that are worthy of your time and attention. Well, now might be a good time to go out and pick those shows up (or borrow them from someone who already has bought them thanks to my recommendation).
As you are most likely aware, the Writers’ Guild of America has gone on strike, affecting television, movies, commercials, radio shows, and anyone else who uses union writers (about 80% of personal entertainment outside of music). When the strike began, most scripted television shows had three to seven episodes in the can and ready to go, and several mid-season replacements had up to ten to twelve episodes done. Immediately, though, late night talk shows and news entertainment programs like David Letterman and John Steward went off the air. This was followed by Soap Operas (usually only a week or two ahead of schedule), and this will be followed by scripted television. Further down the road, this might lead to big-budget movies as well, but most of those scripts are completed or near final stages up to a year in advanced.
When we look back at the last time the writers went on strike in 1988, we saw a very different landscape. Cable had just entered a small minority of homes but network television still dominated the ratings. Syndicated television was a feasible and profitable way to get a non-primetime show on the air. And there weren’t many other options out there.
When the writers’ strike ended many months later, 10% of network television’s audience had left and never returned. Most migrated to fledgling cable and got the entertainment from movie channels like TNT and USA, sports and sports-heavy programming from ESPN and TBS, news from CNN and the Weather Channel, reruns of the shows they liked back in the day with Nickelodeon/Nick-at-Nite, and music from MTV. This bleed to cable has continued to today, and network stations like NBC, CBS, ABC, Fox and the CW struggle regularly against cable’s—and even pay-cable stations like HBO and Showtime—original programming and first-run content.
Of course, the biggest winner of the 1988 strike was COPS. Often credited as the grandfather of the genre we call “reality television” today, COPS was a local broadcast on a Fox affiliate station. Looking to fill holes in their schedule (Fox a relatively new station at the time did not have the sports or movies that the bigger guys did), Fox began to syndicate COPS over the country and its popularity exploded. So one could say that without the strike, we would have never got COPS and perhaps never launched today’s reality programs.
That said, there is a big difference between then and now. I wanted to examine what might come out of this strike by comparing it to the previous, but there are many different factors to consider. One might immediately assume there are a few types of shows that would benefit from scripted programming not being available. They are:
Reality Television – the standard bearer for cheap television, reality shows seem the logical choice to fill in programming gaps should the strike continue for a long time. The problem is that most “reality” shows today have writers. People need to come up with the events, make speeches for the announcers and narrators, and edit the shows up into “storylines”. These shows are not like COPS that take raw footage and then just cut it up. Everything from “Cheaters” to “Survivor” employs union writers. Unless there is a show like COPS out there (FIREMEN?) there is little room for “reality” to take over.
Game shows – Over the past six years, game shows have had an amazing resurgence, especially in prime time. Depending on the show, some may not require writers and can be adlibbed by the host. Games like 1-versus-100 and Dealor No Deal may find more primetime nights. Meanwhile, the Price is Right with new host Drew Carey could have some primetime specials, and Who Wants to be a Millionaire could make its return to primetime as well.
Sports – With so many holes in their schedules, network and cable companies may start competing over out-of-market games to broadcast nationally, both on the professional level and college level (and on the high school level locally in some states that find that sort of thing appealing). The NFL Network is most likely using this strike as leverage in their ongoing negotiations to say, “Hey, we are putting on some of the best games here, you want your cable company to carry us!” Luckily, I already have a satellite service that carries that network.
Professional Wrestling – Yes, my favorite things to watch on television and in person, wrestling provides 52 weeks of original programming a year. During the last strike, the WWE (then WWF) filled in for Saturday Night Live. Right now, the WWE is in the middle of their new contract with NBC/Universal (a division of GE) and could be poised to gain many primetime specials. TNA runs on Viacom owned SpikeTV and is said to be in negotiations with CBS and ABC to run network programming. This fledgling five-year old company is looking to gain more exposure, and this might prove to be the opening.
I’ll also lump in MMA (Mixed Martial Arts) programs like the UFC into here and Sports as well. While MMA will not find a home on network television, cable companies like SpikeTV will continue to push for more original programming and fights on their network, making them “destination” television.
Of course, an important factor to consider is what I said above. First, that 10% of the audience left during the last striker and never returned and, second, that today is very different. Back then, options were limited as to where you could go. Today, there are a plethora of other options in user-generated content on YouTube, video games (both personal and interactive), whole television series on DVD (I have quite a backlog to watch myself), digital music, and the old standby: reading. Then again, reading could mean reading articles on Wikipedia, so the internet wins again.
The longer this strike goes on, the more people are going to turn to other forms of entertainment and stay hooked. Before this strike got underway cable and network companies had already been fighting the growing influence of portable and internet entertainment. As original content dries up, more and more people may discover what these places have to offer and never return. A drop of 10% of viewers is 11 million households, quite a large audience to lose overnight. The long term effects on the industry will be astounding, and interesting to watch unfold as the years move on. Who knows what someone may write about the Writers’ Guild Strike of 2007 ten years from now? It will be a whole different world… of entertainment.