Because TV involves unionized people, and unionized people sometimes go on strike. When the Writers’ Guild of America (WGA) goes on strike, this largely shuts down the Hollywood process, since writers are needed for script rewrites on-set and act-er, teamsters aren’t keen to cross picket lines (in fact, they have it in their contract that they’re immune to punishment should they honor any picket line). Strikes come as a result of bargaining falling apart with management, as represented by the AMPTP. As a result, a lot of shows hit by the strike may suffer through having a large batch of their unproduced scripts and stories slashed.
Strikes affect movies too, but the effects are a lot easier to notice for TV.
Disney Animators’ Strike of 1941
Disney’s animators joined the Screen Cartoonists’ Guild and went on strike on May 29 for the profit promised from Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs (which many animators took unpaid overtime to complete) and in response to the firing of prominent lead animator Art Babbitt for joining the Guild. Six weeks later, a federal mediator found in favor of the Guild, and “The Mouse Factory” has been a union joint ever since.
1960 WGA/SAG Strike
January 16–June 10. The writers got the studios to pay into the WGA health and pension funds. Film writers got bigger residuals, and television writers got their wages doubled.
During the writers’ strike, the Screen Actors Guild went on strike as well. This one only lasted six weeks, and is notable for having been led by then-SAG President Ronald Reagan, of all people — which becomes Hilarious in Hindsight given Reagan's later fame as a champion of the free market and opponent of labor unions while President of the United States.
1978 Animation Guild Strike
Went on strike over runaway production (studios started outsourcing animation to lower-wage countries). Led to a new clause where studios had to employ a certain number of employees before they could subcontract. The Guild lost this protection in the 1983 strike (see below).
1980 Hollywood Actors’ Strike
Most notable for the fact that Dallas had recently aired its famous “Who shot J.R.?” season-ending cliffhanger, and the strike meant viewers had to wait five months rather than three to find out who the shooter had been. Extra-strong measures were taken to prevent the solution from leaking, including filming shots of just about every member of the cast and crew, including J.R. himself, pulling the trigger.
1983 Animation Guild Strike
Lasted 10 weeks. Again, the Guild fought over the runaway clause (see 1978). They lost because, well, the studios subcontracted to overseas studios and also to companies in other counties and states (and thus outside of the Guild’s jurisdiction).
The final nail in the coffin was on the ninth week, when Disney animators decided to take “financial core” statusnote and return to work. The Guild lost all hope and called off the strike, losing the “runaway” clause in the process.
1985 WGA Strike
A two-week strike that ended badly for the unions, forcing them to take a terrible residual/royalty on VHS sales, a low number that has had far-reaching effects with the advent of DVD and downloads. This ultimately culminated in the 2007–08 WGA Strike, below.
1987 Directors’ Strike
This strike only lasted three hours and five minutes.
1988 WGA Strike
This one is the WGA’s longest strike (March 7–August 8), over reduced residuals for hour-long series and foreign reruns.
- The biggest event resulting from this strike was that it marked the beginning of the end of the daytime Soap Opera in America. When this happened, the soaps were left without their most experienced writers, and the quality of the shows nosedived as the networks brought in inexperienced nonunion writers who often weren’t familiar with the material. Even after the old writers came back, the damage done by five months of crappy writing was catastrophic. The soaps were still recovering when, in 1995, there came the O.J. Simpson murder trial, which not only knocked the soaps completely off the air for weeks, but provided viewers with a real-life soap opera to enjoy. Daytime soaps, which were once ratings juggernauts, never recovered, and as of now the few daytime soaps that haven’t been canceled yet (with decades-long runs) face the risk of it.
- The ends of Moonlighting and Kate & Allie are attributed to the strike.
- Season 2 of Star Trek: The Next Generation got through the strike by using a Clip Show and some previously-written scripts for the abandoned 1977 Star Trek: Phase II series.
- Star Trek V: The Final Frontier, meanwhile, was forced to go into production with an unfinished script.
- FOX bought C.O.P.S., being a reality show that didn’t require writers (but see above), and it became a very successful long-running show which mothered the genre of Reality Television. America's Most Wanted also found its stride during the strike.
- Small Wonder had an episode about a strike at Ted’s company.
- CBS reran non-holiday-related Peanuts animated specials to help plug holes in primetime, to the point that TV Guide pointed the tactic out in a highlights listing.
- The Simpsons gave a Shout-Out to this strike in “Last Exit to Springfield” where Homer recalls the Springfield Nuclear Power Plant strike of ’88.
- A Bloom County Sunday strip acknowledged the strike. It ran an old strip presumably rewritten by a scab writer, with the new dialogue being anti-union.
- Michael G. Wilson had to finish the script for Licence to Kill as the strike precluded Richard Maibaum from working on it.
- Sam Hamm handed in the script to Batman only days before the strike started. Due to the strike he could not do any rewrites (British writers were hired instead) and many things were changed from his screenplay of which he disapproved.
- Alan B. McElroy had only 11 days to come up with the story and write the screenplay for Halloween 4: The Return of Michael Myers, which he handed in hours before the strike starting.
2007–08 WGA Strike
In 2007, unhappy over low royalties for DVDs, and low or no residuals for Internet distribution of shows and for Internet-only broadcasts, the WGA went on strike from November 12, 2007 to February 5, 2008. The strike was concluded with a deal that granted or increased some Internet residuals, while not affecting DVDs.
The strike was also the first of its kind to take place in the era of the Internet. As a result, writers had a more direct line of communication with fans/the general public, which led to unprecedented public support. When Joss Whedon announced a “Meet Joss Whedon” day on the picket lines, fans streamed in from as far away as Australia.
The results of the strike:
- 24, with only eight episodes in the can before the strike, decided that an incomplete season would not be a good thing and delayed Season 7 until January 2009. A two-hour Made-for-TV Movie prequel aired November 2008.
- This also meant that Kiefer Sutherland, who pleaded no contest to his second DUI charge, got to serve his 48-day jail sentence in one go. He’d planned to do it in two stints, during the production gaps.
- 30 Rock is an interesting case since the series is about the production of a Show Within a Show and several of the regular characters (including the protagonist) are writers. Per Word of God, the strike didn’t happen in the 30 Rock universe. Episode 210 went out without a formal title, the script having been turned in a couple of days before the strike began.
- Bionic Woman got eight episodes done, but was then axed during it.
- Journeyman had all 13 of its episodes written before the strike, and was cancelled for low ratings; the strike is probably responsible for all 13 episodes actually making it to air rather than being DVD-only.
- CSI had a 24-episode run cut to 17 and CSI: New York to 21.
- For UK viewers, this resulted in a) sudden gaps of a couple of weeks to avoid catching up on the first and third (CSI: Miami airs after the other two) and b) the situation where UK viewers ended up mere days behind their US counterparts, resulting in Preview Tapes Not Available being stated because the actual episodes had yet to even air when the Radio Times went to press.
- Smallville from 24 to 20, with the last five episodes incomprehensible. Well, more incomprehensible.
- South Park carried on and bashed the strike in one episode, in which the World Canadian Bureau (WGA) encourages Canadians to strike for “more money”. Many animated programs, including South Park, were written under a different union than the WGA.
- IATSE covers the writers on most animated series. This is a point of contention between the WGA and IATSE.
- The ironic part of the episode was Kyle’s episode-ending speech about how people shouldn’t strive to get money from unproven revenue sources—in the case of the episode, online content. That summer, Parker and Stone had just inked a deal to stream South Park episodes online, with ad content, which was estimated to bring them $75 million over the next four years. So it’s either Hypocritical Humor, or just plain hypocrisy. Your choice.
- The stupid part is that DVDs are very reliable cash cows and people working on the Internet can make a living.
- Family Guy was one of the hardest-hit series during the strike, resulting in two episodes being screened without Seth MacFarlane’s permission, the sixth season ending with only 12 episodes, and the entirety of the seventh broadcast season consisting of episodes held over from the sixth season. American Dad! went a little better, with the third season consisting of 16 episodes.
- The second season of Heroes was also cut from 24 episodes to 11 (more than half a season's worth of episodes), with the final episode of what was supposed to be the first arc hastily altered to wrap up the season. The planned spinoff Heroes: Origins was never produced. The idea that Volume 2 went "slow" (when it was being planned out for a 24-episode season) likely resulted in the rapid pacing and constant plot shifts of Volume 3.
- When the producers of Lost set an end date for the show, the final three seasons were originally planned to have 16 episodes each. The fourth season was supposed to have the episodes all aired in a row, but the strike cut it down to 13 episodes with a month-long break between episodes 8 and 9, although the script for the finale was long enough that the season was later extended to 14 episodes. As well, to make up for the lost episodes, Seasons 5 and 6 were extended to 17 episodes each (with Season 6 later being pushed up to 18).
- The Angels & Demons adaptation was delayed by a few months.
- ER and Scrubs, both scheduled to end during the 2007–08 season, were extended one more season to have a proper sendoff (with Scrubs channel-hopping to ABC to do it).
- Supernatural had its normal 22 episodes cut down to 16 for the third season, with the last few episodes time-jumping through how long Dean had left.
- A few shows got lucky. The strike almost exactly coincided with the time the writers of Burn Notice were supposed to be taking a break anyway, and USA actually ordered more episodes for Season 2 than had been planned pre-strike.
- The Stargate-verse was unaffected: Stargate Atlantis is produced in Canada and had wrapped filming before the strike started anyway.
- The late-night talk shows went on hiatus for the first couple of months, but returned in January rather than lay off the non-striking production staff. Notably, David Letterman negotiated a special deal with the WGA to let both his show and Craig Ferguson’s return with their full writing staff; the others (including The Tonight Show, The Daily Show, and The Colbert Report) relied on non-scripted material for the duration of the strike.
- Which led to the hilarious crossover episodes between TDS, TCR and Late Night culminating in a fake fight between Stephen Colbert, Jon Stewart, and Conan O’Brien.
- Terminator: The Sarah Connor Chronicles ended abruptly without really ending the season; on the other hand, since it was used as a midseason replacement, the absence of competitors may have helped it gain an audience. It was renewed for another season.
- Joss Whedon got bored and wrote Dr. Horrible's Sing-Along Blog. Dollhouse had its development put on hold as a result.
- Brothers and Sisters went through a couple of large time-jumps plot-wise.
- Warner Bros.’ lack of a solid summer blockbuster for 2009 meant Harry Potter and the Half-Blood Prince was moved back to fill that slot (The Dark Knight did so well that they weren’t worried about having a successful ’08 without it), and Twilight moved up a month to fill its slot. The announcement that Harry Potter was being moved came after the TimeWarner-owned magazine Entertainment Weekly gave that film the cover of its Fall Preview issue, leaving EW with egg on its face.
- Pushing Daisies was a clear casualty: the strike hit nine episodes into Season 1, and ABC decided not to bring it back in the spring (like every other show brought back after the strike). Waiting until the next TV season resulted in it being off the air for almost a year, and proved to have sapped its audience beyond recovery.
- Some shows that were to air over the summer were rushed out a few months early to compensate for the strike. Hell's Kitchen aired in April instead of June.
- Battlestar Galactica was halted mid-season, and Earth, which was supposedly to be shown in the next-to-last episode, ended up appearing in the midseason finale.
- In addition, because the writers knew that the show would end at that point if the strike went south, “Sometimes a Great Notion” was written in a way to resemble something of a series finale. An understandable effort that ended up undermining the show as a whole when the strike ended and the series went on, forcing the writers to restart and end the story in the space of 11 episodes. This resulted with the "show-ending arcs" (Fleet slowly dying out, the Cylon Civil War, etc.) being squeezed beyond recognition and was the source of some of the more controversial elements of the last 11 episodes.
- Bones’ third season was cut to 15 episodes, and the season-long serial killer Story Arc was given a problematic ending.
- Michael Bay supposedly wrote much of Transformers: Revenge of the Fallen while Roberto Orci and Alex Kurtzman were on strike.
- The script for Quantum of Solace was finished two hours before the strike commenced and some filming took place with Daniel Craig having to work on the script with the director. It showed (NSFW language).
- Greek’s first season was halted after 10 episodes. These episodes were then compiled as “Chapter One,” and the rest of the season as “Chapter Two.” Because of this, the later seasons were also divided into chapters.
- The season division strategy unexpectedly started by Greek is now used by most ABC Family dramas to make spreading production costs out easier and to keep buzz percolating through the summer and into the winter, where ABC Family takes advantage of The CW’s winter hiatuses between November and February to air the second half of a season.
- Las Vegas was cancelled on a Cliffhanger that was never even intended as a season ender.
- Because Britain and Australia (and presumably other countries as well) ended up with less American content than they were expecting, some channels relaunched old shows, leading to a new season of both local versions of Gladiators and the reboot of Good News Week.
- Dirty Sexy Money had been rising as a "guilty pleasure" show but went on a hiatus that lasted until the following fall. During that time, a showrunner turnover altered the show's fun vibe into a more "soap opera" aspect and the second season was seen as a serious comedown in quality, leading to its cancellation.
- When the writers for Power Rangers went on strike, Disney went ahead and hired scab writers to finish most of Power Rangers Jungle Fury with the WGA writers returning with four episodes remaining to write. It actually worked out fairly well as Jungle Fury is (at least) seen as a step back in the right direction after years of declining quality.
- Eastbound & Down had only just finished work on its pilot episode when the strike hit, meaning the rest of the first season wasn’t made until late 2008 and the show itself didn’t air until early 2009. The effect of this hiatus is only really noticeable in the changed appearances of Dustin’s kids, though, since their actors had obviously grown more in the year off.
- Attributed to the cancellation of Just Jordan, due to it being the only Nickelodeon original show at the time to feature WGA writers.
- The long-running sitcom Girlfriends was Cut Short due to the strike, and the CW couldn’t afford to give them a series finale.
- Breaking Bad had its first season cut off after seven episodes, with no chance to rework the last one into season finale material. Though this ended up working out for the best, as Jesse Pinkman would have been killed had it gone a full season, and instead Vince Gilligan had time to rework his plans for the show after it became clear how popular he was.
- Post-strike budget cuts at Saturday Night Live resulted in the demise of Robert Smigel’s animated “Saturday TV Funhouse” segments.
- Out of Jimmy's Head was cancelled, but considering this was the first series to mark the Network Decay of Cartoon Network, that may have been considered a good thing.
- Speaking of CN, this was one of the contributing factors (others being going over-budget and a lawsuit) that led to the premature end of Class of 3000 shortly after it premiered, as most of the writers were with the WGA.
- Interestingly, Desperate Housewives was one show that benefited from the strike. The show had just done an episode of a tornado hitting the neighborhood and the long time between new episodes gave a logical excuse for the neighborhood to be rebuilt. Also, the writers acknowledged that they had to drop several "filler" plotlines (such as Mike in rehab) that would have filled the winter and early spring episodes and thus concentrate on the season-ending storylines better.
1968 ITV Strike
A franchise shakeup led to a lot of workers being forced to move location (there were no actual job losses). A dispute over who would get redundancy payments (specifically over those moving company, but not location) led to wildcat strikes and lockouts.
A month later, the strike ended, all sides claiming victory. The bitterness would continue, though...
1970 "Colour Strike"
Technicians at all ITV companies had a pay dispute with the management. In retaliation, they refused to use colour equipment and only recorded shows in monochrome, which meant ITV couldn't sell airtime to advertisers at the higher rates they requested for colour and couldn't make full use of the colour equipment they had just heavily invested into.
To create a monochrome image with the colour equipment, the technicians simply switched off the colour tubes on their cameras† and switched off the color signal on their telecine machines (used for filmed location footage).
The strike lasted from 13 November 1970 to 8 February 1971 and affected such programs as Coronation Street, The Benny Hill Show, The Golden Shot, Please Sir!, Upstairs Downstairs, On the Buses and Crossroads.
1979 ITV Strike
Electricians (an important job in TV production) at Thames Television, the station who provided the ITV service for viewers in London from Monday to Friday afternoon and undoubtedly the Team Mom of the ITV network, walked out over a pay increase they felt was derisory. The management tried to maintain a normal service, but other workers refused to help do this. Thames told the strikers to “return or else”.
In response, ACTT (the broadcasting union) got 13 of the other ITV regional stations to go on strike as well, this being a time when sympathy strikes were still permitted in Britain. Channel Television, serving The Channel Islands, was the only company in the network to continue broadcasting during the blackout, because the tiny size of its audience meant a loss of revenue could have put it out of business.
The result was the nearly total shut down of ITV for ten weeks (10 August to 5.43pm on 24 October) and the loss of around £100m in revenue for the striking companies. Channel Television sustained itself with extended regional news bulletins and Western movies.
In other areas of the UK, with only three channels at this point in time, The BBC was the sole alternative, resulting in Doctor Who getting its highest ratings ever for “City of Death”, a record that even David Tennant’s regeneration barely scraped.
- Doctor Who didn’t escape strike action. That season saw “Shada” ultimately cancelled after strike action prevented the second and third studio session from taking place, although in that case it was a tube strike, not an industry one. The completed portions were released on VHS in 1992, and eventually done as an audio drama for the Eighth Doctor in 2003, before finally being released in full as originally written in 2017, with the unfinished parts animated. Scriptwriter Douglas Adams reused the concepts he originally came up with for this serial for what eventually became Dirk Gently's Holistic Detective Agency.
- This period had “work-to-rule” going on a fair bit. The DVD for The Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy includes an extra showing the cast and crew trying (and just succeeding) to get a scene filmed before the lights were turned off.
The strike ended in a victory for the unions. ITV wasn’t able to air much newly-produced programming for two-and-a-half months (showing lots of episodes of 3–2–1 instead), but gradually recovered its audience.
It was the longest dispute in British television history.