the 1988 writers' strike
from which TV never recovered
By Gabriel Spitzer
In just these
recent days in Hollywood, as network executives went before the nation's
TV critics to explain their midseason schedule changes, there has been an
undertow of discussion about the impending labor negotiations between the
studios and the writers and actors who turn out the shows we watch.
There is a growing sense among some that a strike
is inevitable come spring.
They would do well to remember 1988. That was the year of
the last major strike by the Writers Guild of America.
To say those memories are unpleasant would be an
For 22 weeks, from March
7 through Aug. 7, the writers did not write and television ground to a
Thirteen years later, the networks are still paying for
those five months of darkened TV sets.
Already facing audience erosion, network executives
watched as Americans turned off their TV sets in disgust. And when they
turned them back on again months later, there were a lot fewer
Nearly 10 percent of Americans declined to tune back in.
Observers rightly worry that a strike today could cause
far more damage. And that damage would occur in far less time.
Unlike many strikes, the 1988 strike just seemed to
happen, taking both sides by surprise.
George Kirgo, president of the WGA during the í88 strike, few actually
expected the work stoppage until nearly the last minute.
strike, there was no expectation of a strike. I certainly didnít expect
it, and our negotiating committee didnít expect it. Finally a week
before the strike, we thought then that it might actually happen," he
The last time the WGA
had walked out was in 1985, a disastrous affair from the unionís
perspective. The strike lasted only two weeks, and the WGA was forced to
capitulate on most of its demands.
Kirgo believes that the
studios expected the same thing in 1988.
"I think it was a
miscalculation of what the union had become. After 1985 the union was
badly battered and bruised. But in the three years since, we had organized
internally for this possibility. We were situated where we wouldnít take
any crap. The companies thought that we were still in the weakened
position," he says.
The next five months
would be hard times indeed for all involved. Rifts appeared in the ranks
of both sides, while negotiators and a federal mediator struggled to work
out an agreement.
By the end of the
strike, network television had to push its fall season all the way back to
the winter holidays. Network TV lost 9 percent of its audience, from which
it never really recovered. Bidding wars ensued over scripts, causing a
ramp-up in prices that some say persists even now.
Not only were the
writers out of work for nearly half a year, but layoffs rippled outward to
production workers, caterers, shipping services and a host of other
industries that depended on film and television for their business.
Overall, the Los Angeles economy lost hundreds of
millions of dollars over the course of the strike.
The 1988 strike produced
no clear-cut winner. The resulting contract was a picture of compromise.
"Itís very hard
for a union like the WGA to ever say that a strike was truly successful.
You can argue that the writers won on the issue they struck for, but they
were out of work for a long time," says Dr. Ronald Seeber, a
professor at Cornell Universityís School of Industrial and Labor
Relations and co-editor of a volume about labor relations in the
Today the networks
appear in certain respects to be in a much more sensitive position than
they were in 1988.
The Los Angeles County
Economic Development Corporation projects a loss as high as $2 billion a
month in salaries and other costs. By comparison, the recent commercial
actorsí strike cost $230 million over six months.
The big networks have
spent most of this decade watching their audience slip away toward cable,
a process begun largely as a result of the 1988 strike.
Now that cable offerings have multiplied many times
over and the internet is so widely available, six months of reruns in 2001
would almost certainly push many more people to explore other viewing
"The delay of the
season was a much bigger deal in 1988 than it is today. Now the season
fluctuates so much. And with cable itís not even clear that people would
notice if the networksí programs were delayed a few weeks," says
In other words, a
delayed season might be less jarring to viewers than it was in 1988, but
it could also dramatically speed up the erosion of viewership for the
Seeber notes that
many of the issues of the 1988 strike closely resemble what is breaking
the deal in 2001. Then, as now, most of the points deal with refiguring
residuals, the formulas by which writers get paid for programs and films
shown in repeats, syndication and foreign distribution, to name a few.
and writers have been trying to track the income that comes in after the
initial showing. That is the fundamental story in Hollywood for the last
20 years. Every strike between 1960 and 1990 was over residuals in some
form or another," says Seeber.
As new technologies and
distribution channels emerge, this is a battle that will likely be fought
again and again in coming years.
But in spite of
reigning pessimism, the WGAís Kirgo believes that the industry learned a
lesson from 1988, namely that a prolonged strike could do irreparable
damage to both sides.
everybody is going to come to their senses. I honestly believe that they
will not let another strike happen."
Spitzer is a staff writer for Media Life
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