Late-night talk shows go dark as Hollywood writers strike begins

Late-night TV shows including The Tonight Show and The Daily Show will begin airing reruns Tuesday as unionized screenwriters soured by diminished pay in the streaming era went on strike for the first time in 15 years.

Streaming has upended the industry, compensation rates since the last writers' strike

A man raises his fist with one hand and holds a strike sign in the other.
Writers Guild of America West member Victor Duenas pickets outside Paramount Pictures, on Tuesday in Los Angeles. Late-night shows including The Tonight Show and The Daily Show immediately went dark after last-minute talks failed to avert Hollywood's first work stoppage in 15 years. (Chris Pizzello/The Associated Press)

Late-night TV shows including The Tonight Show and The Daily Show will begin airing reruns Tuesday as unionized screenwriters soured by diminished pay in the streaming era went on strike for the first time in 15 years.

Some 11,500 film and television writers represented by the Writers Guild of America put down their pens and laptops after failing to reach a new contract with the trade association that represents Hollywood studios and production companies.

Late-night television was the first to feel the fallout, just as it was during the 2007 writers strike that last for 100 days.

All of the top late-night shows, which are staffed by writers that pen monologues and jokes for their hosts, immediately went dark. NBC's The Tonight Show, Comedy Central's Daily Show, ABC's Jimmy Kimmel Live, CBS's The Late Show and NBC's Late Night all made plans for reruns through the week.

NBC didn't immediately comment on plans for Saturday Night Live. The sketch show is scheduled to air a new episode Saturday hosted by Pete Davidson.

On Friday's episode of Late Night, Seth Meyers, a WGA member who said he supported the union's demands, prepared viewers for re-runs while lamenting the hardship a strike entails.

"It doesn't just affect the writers, it affects all the incredible non-writing staff on these shows," Meyers said. "And it would really be a miserable thing for people to have to go through, especially considering we're on the heels of that awful pandemic that affected, not just show business, but all of us."

A man in a tuxedo smiles while posing for a photo.
Seth Meyers, seen at the Emmy Awards on Sept. 12, 2022, in Los Angeles, told his Late Night viewers last week to prepare for old episodes to be rerun during the strike. (Richard Shotwell/Invision/The Associated Press)

'An existential crisis'

The board of directors for the WGA, which includes both a West and an East branch, voted unanimously to call for a strike, effective at the stroke of midnight. Writers, they said, are facing an "existential crisis."

"The companies' behaviour has created a gig economy inside a union workforce, and their immovable stance in this negotiation has betrayed a commitment to further devaluing the profession of writing," the WGA said in a statement.

"From their refusal to guarantee any level of weekly employment in episodic television, to the creation of a 'day rate' in comedy variety, to their stonewalling on free work for screenwriters and on AI for all writers, they have closed the door on their labour force and opened the door to writing as an entirely freelance profession."

The Alliance of Motion Picture and Television Producers (AMPTP), the trade association that bargains on behalf of studios and production companies, said it presented an offer with "generous increases in compensation for writers as well as improvements in streaming residuals."

In a statement, the AMPTP said that it was prepared to improve its offer "but was unwilling to do so because of the magnitude of other proposals still on the table that the guild continues to insist upon."

WATCH | Writers picket in Manhattan:

Striking writers picket in Manhattan

5 months ago
Duration 0:49
'We're out here to flex our muscles and let the producers know we're not happy with what they're offering,' writer Colleen Werthmann said during the first day of the strike by film and television writers represented by the Writers Guild of America.

Near-unanimous support from writers

The labour dispute could have a cascading effect on TV and film productions depending on how long the strike persists. But a shutdown has been widely forecast for months due to the scope of the discord. The writers last month voted overwhelming to authorize a strike, with 98 per cent of membership in support.

At issue is how writers are compensated in an industry where streaming has changed the rules of Hollywood economics. Writers say they aren't being paid enough, TV writer rooms have shrunk too much and the old calculus for how residuals are paid out needs to be redrawn.

"The survival of our profession is at stake," the guild has said.

A building exterior is shown bearing the words Writers Guild of America West.
The Writers Guild of America West offices are seen in Los Angeles on April 25. The WGA said its 11,500 unionized screenwriters will head to the picket lines after failing to reach a deal with the alliance that bargains on behalf of studios and production companies. (Mike Blake/Reuters)

Streaming has exploded the number of series and films that are annually made, meaning more jobs for writers. But WGA members say they're making much less money and working under more strained conditions. Showrunners on streaming series receive just 46 per cent of the pay that showrunners on broadcast series receive, the WGA claims. Content is booming, but pay is down.

The guild is seeking more compensation on the front-end of deals. Many of the back-end payments writers have historically profited by — like syndication and international licensing — have been largely phased out by the onset of streaming. More writers — roughly half — are being paid minimum rates, an increase of 16 per cent over the last decade. The use of so-called mini-writers rooms has soared.

LISTEN| Bracing for a possible strike:
Local actor and filmmaker Cynthia Zhou speaks with Gloria Macarenko about a prolonged downturn in work, with the possibility of a strike by the Writers Guild of America looming.

Picket lines were planned Tuesday in Los Angeles and New York, including outside the Manhattan building where NBCUniversal is holding an event for advertisers to its streaming service, Peacock.

In Los Angeles, writers plan to demonstrate outside the offices of Walt Disney Co., Netflix, Amazon, Universal, Warner Bros., Paramount, CBS and Sony.

A man writes a message in blue marker on a strike sign.
Isaac Gomez, a captain in the Writers Guild of America West, writes a message on a sign before a rally in front of Paramount Pictures on Tuesday. (Chris Pizzello/The Associated Press)

The AMPTP said Monday that the primary sticking points to a deal revolved around those mini-rooms — the guild is seeking a minimum number of scribes per writer room — and duration of employment restrictions. The guild has said more flexibility for writers is needed when they're contracted for series that have tended to be more limited and short-lived than the once-standard 20-plus episode broadcast season.

At the same time, studios are under increased pressure from Wall Street to turn a profit with their streaming services. Many studios and production companies are slashing spending. The Walt Disney Co. is eliminating 7,000 jobs. Warner Bros. Discovery is cutting costs to lessen its debt. Netflix has pumped the breaks on spending growth.

When Hollywood writers have gone on strike, it's often been lengthy. In 1988, a WGA strike lasted 153 days. The last WGA strike went for 100 days, beginning in 2007 and ending in 2008.

Studios to rely on a backlog of content

Several people are shown walking and carrying signs in an outdoor photo.
Union members picket outside Paramount Studios during the last writers' strike, in February 2008. (Nick Ut/The Associated Press)

The strike's impact on scripted series and films will take longer to notice; those with finished scripts are permitted to continue shooting. During the 2007 strike, late-night hosts eventually returned to air and improvised their way through shows.

But if a strike persisted through the summer, fall schedules could be upended. And in the meantime, not having writers available for rewrites can have a dramatic effect on quality. The James Bond film Quantum of Solace was one of many films rushed into production during the 2007-2008 strike with what Daniel Craig called "the bare bones of a script."

With a walkout long expected, writers have rushed to get scripts in and studios have sought to prepare their pipelines to keep churning out content for at least the short term.

"We're assuming the worst from a business perspective," David Zaslav, chief executive of Warner Bros. Discovery, said last month. "We've got ourselves ready. We've had a lot of content that's been produced."

Overseas series could also fill some of the void. "We have a large base of upcoming shows and films from around the world," Ted Sarandos, Netflix co-chief executive, said on the company's earnings call in April.

The WGA strike may only be the beginning. Contracts for both the Directors Guild of America and SAG-AFTRA, the actors union, expire in June. Some of the same issues around the business model of streaming will factor into those bargaining sessions. The DGA is set to begin negotiations with AMPTP on May 10.