SAG-AFTRA performers are now joining WGA writers on the picket line. The result is a double labor action whose effects are rippling through the entertainment industry.
While we can reasonably estimate how the strikes will impact narrative film and television, its consequences for unscripted programming are far less clear. In this post, we’re digging deep into a single question: How will the SAG and WGA strikes impact unscripted TV?
This post will mostly focus on the effects of the WGA picket line, but we’ll consider how SAG’s added involvement alters the situation. Below, we’ll break down the story so far, take a few notes from history, and analyze the current media landscape in search of clues.
On May 2nd, 2023, the Writers Guild of America went on strike after six weeks of unsuccessful negotiations with the Alliance of Motion Picture and Television Producers (AMPTP).
As of the time of this post’s publication, the strike continues, and negotiations remain at a standstill.
The immediate consequences of the strike are exactly what you’d expect. Writers have stopped writing, and most production has slowed to a crawl. The resulting long-term effects will be felt most heavily in narrative films and television shows.
As the flow of scripts runs dry, fewer scripted projects can be produced. As fewer projects are produced, carefully planned programming schedules will face disruptions for months, and in some cases, years into the future.
You can check out ours posts for an in-depth look at how the WGA strike and SAG strikes are affecting the production community at large. For the rest of this post, we want to focus exclusively on the production of unscripted television.
Unscripted TV doesn’t quite fit the mold set by its narrative counterparts, at least not when it comes to the WGA strike. In theory, if a production requires no script, then there’s no reason that the production can’t simply continue.
However, that’s just a theory. It turns out that facts surrounding the 2023 WGA strike might paint a much more complicated picture.
Opinion surrounding the current strike’s impact on unscripted TV tends to fall into one of two camps. Some think the strike will inadvertently cause a surge of unscripted content, while others believe that the unscripted community faces a rough road ahead.
In the following sections, we’ll examine the logic behind each of these outlooks, taking stock of each possibility on its own merits.
Let’s start with the upside.
The 2023 WGA strike is not the first in guild history. The Writers Guild of America has struck on no less than six prior occasions since the guild’s founding in the 1950s, more than any other major film union.
Of these previous strikes, the last two bear significance in the history of unscripted television.
Today, unscripted programs like Floor Is Lava and Vanderpump Rules are ratings juggernauts, but that wasn’t always the case. Documentary filmmaking has been around since the birth of motion pictures. What we now call unscripted television didn’t emerge until nearly a century later.
In retrospect, it was helped along considerably by the WGA strike of 1988.
At 22 weeks, the 1988 WGA strike was the longest in guild history up to that point. With scripting frozen, the tight programming schedules of broadcast television faced a desperate drought. As the crucial fall season loomed, reruns of Alf and Cheers just weren’t going to cut it. Where would the networks turn in their time of need?
Fox, for one, leaned hard into the possibilities of unscripted.
A new network in the late '80s, the Fox Broadcasting Company did not own a deep programming library and struggled to compete with its larger competitors. Facing further challenges with the ’88 WGA strike, Fox executives were in search of a tall order. They needed low-cost shows that could attract high volumes of viewers without reliance on striking scribes.
They filled their order with Cops and America’s Most Wanted. Partially thanks to the strike, these two shows became the foundation of primetime Fox programming. Along with The Simpsons, they drove Fox to mainstream success for over 20 years.
For our purposes, this series of events illustrates an important point. Instead of scripted television, networks may turn to unscripted alternatives. Cops and America’s Most Wanted demonstrated that unscripted programming could adequately fill the content gap left by a writers’ strike.
It was a lesson that networks would remember the next time around.
By the mid-2000s, unscripted television had entered the mainstream. Shows like Survivor, Big Brother, and American Idol led primetime ratings, burying many of their narrative counterparts. When the WGA went on strike in 2007, major networks had their programming strategy ready at hand.
The strike lasted from November 2007 to February 2008. The television ecosystem was flooded with new unscripted series and accelerated orders for established unscripted programs. Networks took the example set by Fox and expanded it to its natural conclusion.
In other words, ’07 and ’08 were boom times for unscripted production. While the strike led to a shutdown in one part of the industry, it kicked off a gold rush in another.
With the current WGA strike, many commentators expect history to repeat itself. In a drought of scripted content, it’s only natural that streamers and networks would turn once again to unscripted alternatives.
The logic is simple, but some disagree. Let’s take a look at the counterpoint.
The television ecosystem has evolved considerably since 2007. Streaming services like Netflix have become normalized. Unscripted content is no longer a novelty. TV revenue models, distribution methods, and production norms are more variable than at any previous moment.
Times change. This is a fact of life. But if times have changed that much, can we really expect this strike to play out like any of its predecessors?
For unscripted TV production, some industry observers are predicting a less optimistic outlook this time around. Today’s environment is more complicated, and unscripted may no longer be such an easy fit for programming gaps.
To explain, here are four factors that might prevent an unscripted boon during the 2023 WGA strike:
Exactly how “unscripted” is unscripted television? The answer varies dramatically from show to show, but writers nonetheless have a significant presence in the unscripted community. Enough so that writers on some programs have unionized with the WGA.
For example, the classic game show Jeopardy! relies on WGA writers, as does CBS daytime series The Talk. Alex Gibney’s Jigsaw Productions voluntarily recognized a union in 2021, and freelancers at Sharp Entertainment organized with the WGA back in 2014.
Note that unscripted shows covered by the WGA are still very much in the minority overall. Most unscripted programs and production companies remain outside the union ecosystem. Nevertheless, the presence of WGA talent in the unscripted community heightens the current strike’s potential to cause delays or personnel complications.
Broadcast and cable networks operate within the linear constraints of set programming schedules. Streaming services, however, offer content on demand. Their shows are not bound by unique time slots, and viewers are free to explore anything at any time.
The normalization of streaming represents a paradigm shift in television beyond the scope of this article. However, the transition from programming schedule to content library has a specific relevance here.
If there is no schedule, a strike cannot force scheduling gaps. The flow of fresh material will slow or stop, which may deter viewers. But there’ll be no scramble to fill suddenly empty time slots. Instead, streaming services can choose to lean on the established library of shows already available on their respective apps.
The previous WGA strike caused a spike in demand for unscripted TV. That demand was directly connected to broadcast schedules. Today, streaming services are essentially unburdened by such schedules. Therefore, no spike in unscripted demand is guaranteed, and any spike that might occur will likely be less intense.
WGA strikes impact everyone’s bottom line, from individual writers all the way up to major studios. This specific strike hit at a moment when studios, networks, and streamers were already tightening their belts.
On top of large-scale economic challenges and a contraction in the streaming market, the WGA and SAG strikes have merely accelerated a push toward increased frugality.
Broad cost-cutting measures could have a major impact on unscripted development and production. Unscripted TV is generally less expensive than its narrative counterparts, but its production still costs money. If streamers and networks actively trim expenses during the strike, financial support for unscripted content is likely to take a hit.
Current conditions seem to corroborate this point. During the 2007-2008 strike, a buying spree for unscripted content quickly emerged. During the current strike, no similar spree has been reported thus far.
A strike by one major union creates challenging production conditions. Simultaneous strikes from multiple film unions or guilds can create a content standstill. The AMPTP has faced not one but three separate contract negotiations this summer. One was completed, but the other two are still open.
The WGA, DGA, and SAG-AFTRA each represent a pivotal selection of film crew positions. While unscripted production is largely non-union, a strike by any one of them would impact at least some portion of the unscripted community.
In June, the AMPTP struck a deal with the DGA, averting the labor action that likely would have been most challenging for unscripted production. DGA directors and assistant directors often helm game shows, talk shows, and. A DGA strike would have frozen a large portion of those unscripted programs.
Negotiations between the AMPTP and SAG-AFTRA, however, have been less successful.
As of July 13th, SAG has called a strike. Performers now join writers on the picket lines for the first time in over half a century.
Most unscripted content does not rely on professional performers, which means that a SAG strike presents fewer direct difficulties than a DGA strike in general.
On top of that, the TV and theatrical contracts at the heart of the SAG strike are separate from the Network Television Code contract, which covers most non-dramatic TV programs. Because the Network Television Code remains unstruck, SAG performers may still work on variety shows, talk shows, game shows, competition shows, and non-theatrical documentaries.
By itself, the SAG-AFTRA strike will have little impact on unscripted production. Combined with the ongoing WGA strike, however, it could create unexpected complications.
The biggest risk is that A-list talent will choose to strike unofficially on shows that fall under the Network Television Code in solidarity with their colleagues on the official picket lines. Similarly, competition and reality shows that previously leaned on professional performers may find themselves working with a more shallow talent pool.
Further complicating the dual WGA and SAG strike is the much-publicized support of IATSE leadership. If IATSE members refuse to cross picket lines, unscripted productions will have yet another hurdle to jump.
The potential effects of compounding labor actions are less predictable than previous factors, but we can be confident that they’ll add instability to the unscripted ecosystem. Unscripted productions will have to contend with an unusual set of hiring conditions to keep cameras rolling. It’s another thread of the unknown weaving its way through the summer production season.
The writer’s strike of 2023 is impacting the entire entertainment industry, including unscripted television. In the upcoming weeks and months, we’ll see if the business of unscripted content repeats history or charts a new path.
As events continue to unfold, keep an eye on Wrapbook for critical news and industry analysis. We bring you in-depth coverage on everything from new unscripted tax credits to unscripted production accounting.
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