As early as midnight tonight, around 13,000 film and TV writers are ready to go on strike. Their union, the Writers Guild of America, West has not yet managed to reach an agreement over pensions and health plans, and how much writers get paid with the Alliance of Motion Picture and Television Producers, which represents the studios.
Writers occupy a critical place in television production. It’s much different from the movies. In movies, it’s the director whose vision is executed, who controls the tone and pace. But in television, plots, characters, themes, even the vibe, all get established in the writers room. Back in 2015, Shonda Rhimes, arguably the most powerful woman in television, described herself as first a writer in an interview on WHYY’s Fresh Air.
“On Grey’s Anatomy and Scandal, I am the writer, executive producer, creator. On How To Get Away With Murder, I am just the executive producer.”
”Just?” responded host Terry Gross in some disbelief.
Rhimes replied that her executive producer tasks on How To Get Away With Murder involved far less creative control.
“It’s more like being the grandmother,” she said. “You hold the baby but then you get to give the baby back. With the other shows, I’m responsible for everything.”
“Writers literally run TV shows,” agrees James Poniewozik, chief TV critic for The New York Times. He says “peak TV” — an era where more than 450 scripted series were produced this season alone — would be impossible without hundreds of writers rooms filled with people bouncing ideas off each other, polishing each others’ work — and serving the creator’s singular voice.
”Mad Men was a particular example of that,” he says. “It was a show really that was TV, but it was very literary. It sort of modeled itself on the kind of voice that you would have in short fiction.”
The collective voice of the writers room is especially crucial with a network comedy like ABC’s Black-ish that might produce as many as 25 episodes a season. But shorter series are increasingly common on streaming, cable and even network shows. Stranger Things, on Netflix, had only eight episodes. That translates to less money for writers, who are paid per episode. According to the Writers Guild of America, writers’ median salaries have actually dropped over the past two years.
Poniewozik was hopeful this strike would be averted. As happy as he is that the writers and studios have found common ground, he could not help but think about a strike’s potential personal upside.
“I might at least get caught up on a lot of my backlog,” he said wryly.
All those shows we don’t have time to watch might be ones we can finally get around to. Poniewozik still plans to check out the Showtime drama Billions and if — god forbid — the strikes drags on and on — he points out there are at least four decades worth of the show Dr. Who.