It’s a growing concern that probably hasn’t gone unnoticed by the hard-working staffs of TV’s late-night shows: A Writers Guild strike would silence their shows, right when they’re providing some of the sharpest analysis and critiques of the Donald Trump administration.
The threat of a strike inched closer to reality Friday, as talks between the Writers Guild of America and the Alliance of Motion Pictures & Television Producers stalled, and members of the WGA’s negotiating committee sent a letter to members asking for a strike authorization vote.
Like the last work stoppage in 2007, a strike would likely hit the business hard — particularly in an era of so much new media disruption. But for liberal-leaning Hollywood, here’s another unfortunate truth: Should a strike be called, the earliest — and perhaps only — winner in all of this could be Trump.
Coincidentally, the WGA letter was sent out the same day that Trump suffered the biggest defeat of his early presidency, as his attempt to “repeal and replace” Obamacare fell apart.
As the news media has struggled with how to cover the Trump administration and its incessant lying, late night shows including “The Late Show with Stephen Colbert,” “Late Night with Seth Meyers,” “Full Frontal with Samantha Bee,” “The Daily Show with Trevor Noah,” “Last Week Tonight with John Oliver,” and “Saturday Night Live” have provided consistent, and trenchant, deep dives that have articulated some of the biggest scandals and conflicts of interests dogging Trump.
Reports like Meyers’ signature “A Closer Look” have given many of the late-night franchises a renewed vigor and sense of purpose. But those essays require a lot of research and sophisticated writing. These aren’t quippy monologue jokes.
The WGA’s current Minimum Basic Agreement with the AMPTP expires May 1; should members approve the board’s strike authorization, then a walkout could take place any time after that.
If a strike is called, series and movies with scripts already in the pipeline would continue shooting. The initial immediate impact would be in late night, where new scripts are generated every day, and production would come to an immediate halt. That means “Saturday Night Live” wouldn’t be able to end its season with one final take on the administration; it would also send the rest of the shows into early summer recess.
“Oy, I can’t even think about that,” one producer recently told me. “But I can’t imagine we would do shows.”
Of course, repeats would fill the void, and viewers could still catch some of the greatest moments from those series’ winter and spring episodes. But with the news happening so fast these days, those episodes would feel particularly dated.
Another pressing issue: A strike might sink some of the momentum that “The Late Show,” “The Daily Show,” and others have seen since Trump took office. After rocky starts, hosts like Colbert and Noah have found their footing, and the ratings prove it. Late night has felt more relevant than ever in recent months, both on air and on online. Not only would ratings be hampered, but the disappearance of online clips might open the door for others to fill the void.
During the 2007-2008 writers strike, “Late Show with David Letterman” and “Late Late Show with Craig Ferguson” were able to return to the airwaves with writers, thanks to Letterman’s Worldwide Pants shingle, which owned both shows. (Worldwide Pants was able to seal an interim deal with the WGA separate from the AMPTP negotiations).
This time, the networks own all of the major late night series, which would make an interim deal unlikely. By January 2008, the talk shows returned sans writers, focusing on multiple interviews with guests and quick, stream-of-consciousness monologues. (Hosts like Jay Leno were criticized for potentially breaking strike ranks by writing jokes, but the WGA never pursued action).
That could happen again this time, should a strike drag on. Hosts like Colbert, Meyers, Bee, and Noah are all sharp and could easily give an impromptu take on the day’s news without the aid of a teleprompter. But that commentary would still miss the depth and detailed analysis that their teams of writers currently produce on a daily basis.
None of this is meant to pass judgment on either side. The issues being brought up by both the WGA and the AMPTP are even more complicated and difficult to parse than they were 10 years ago, when we were just creeping into the digital age. The world has changed a lot: There are more scripted series than ever, but most of them are now 13 episodes or less. And both broadcast and cable networks are struggling to adapt to the competitive pressures brought on by streaming giants like Netflix, and diminished ratings. Some networks are disappearing all together.
But if their differences can’t be ironed out by May, the WGA and AMPTP may wind up helping a scandal-plagued president who rose to power thanks to unscripted reality TV — and that may be the biggest irony of them all.