What the 2023 Hollywood writers strike means for your favorite TV shows

A deal wasn't reached by the May 1 deadline, so the Writers Guild of America's 11,500 unionized screenwriters have headed to the picket lines.

(Illustration: Aisha Yousaf/Photo: Getty Images)
Here's how your favorite shows will be impacted now that 11,500 Hollywood writers have walked off the job. (Illustration: Aisha Yousaf/Photo: Getty Images)

The Hollywood writers strike is underway. Negotiations between the Writers Guild of America (WGA) and Alliance of Motion Picture and Television Producers (AMPTP) stalled as the two parties failed to agree to a new contract by the May 1 deadline. As a result, on Tuesday morning the 11,500 unionized screenwriters halted all script writing and headed to the picket lines for the WGA’s first strike in 15 years.

The AMPTP said in a statement that "a comprehensive package proposal" was presented to the WGA, offering "generous increases in compensation for writers as well as improvements in streaming residuals." However, it wasn’t accepted and negotiations “concluded without an agreement.”

An immediate impact is the shutdown of late-night shows, including The Late Show With Stephen Colbert, Jimmy Kimmel Live! and The Tonight Show Starring Jimmy Fallon, which will air reruns.

Saturday Night Live, which was supposed to have Pete Davidson as its host this weekend, announced on Tuesday it was canceling its live shows and "will air repeats until further notice starting Saturday," NBC said in a statement. Other weekly shows like Real Time With Bill Maher and Last Week Tonight With John Oliver are also impacted, but exact plans are expected later this week.

The strike, now that it's happening, will be completely devastating to the entertainment industry, the Los Angeles economy and trickle down to ancillary businesses. For your average TV viewer, however, the very thing at the heart of the WGA contract dispute — streaming — is also the reason people won't feel the ripple effect the way they once did. During past WGA strikes — also including the one in 1988, which lasted 22 weeks — people would turn on the TV in their living rooms and get reruns of their favorite network scripted shows. Today, with so many streaming services, the way people watch is so different (TVs, computers and phones) and programming has become a bottomless well.

"Any viewer that says, 'Why are they striking? I don't get it.' My first question would be: Do you watch television the same way today as you watched television 20 years ago?'" Syracuse University professor Robert Thompson, the founding director of the Bleier Center for Television and Popular Culture and a trustee professor at Newhouse School of Public Communication tells Yahoo Entertainment. "And the answer is going to be, for the vast majority of those people, 'No, we watch it totally differently.' The fact that you watch it totally differently has upset the economic models in which all this stuff was based on. And your change from watching a TV set in a living room when the shows were on to watching whatever you feel like, whenever you feel like it, wherever you want — on your phone, laptop, Smart TV, or whatever — all of the changes that you have made in the industry by how you watch television has changed the whole economic basis on which that industry works.

"And that needs to be rationalized into how people get paid," he says, "and that's what these contracts are trying to do."

Whether you're a Succession stan or a Jeopardy! watcher, here's how your favorite shows will be impacted...

Who is having the dispute?

The WGA, which is the union representing most of the Hollywood writers behind your favorite shows and films, and the AMPTP, the entertainment industry's official collective bargaining representative, which negotiates for the major Hollywood studios (Disney, Warner Bros., Sony, Paramount and Universal), streaming services (Netflix, Apple TV+ and Prime Video) and broadcast networks (ABC, CBS, Fox and NBC) can't come to terms on a new contract.

A new deal is negotiated every three years. The last was in 2020, during the pandemic, and it went down to the wire with talk of a potential work stoppage. This time around marks the first full-fledged strike since 2007-2008, which was a 100-day shutdown costing the Los Angeles economy an estimated $2.1 billion, according to the Milken Institute. There was also a strike in 1988, which lasted 22 weeks and cost the industry an estimated $500 million.

"If you are a writer, if you're a producer, if you work in Hollywood in the industry, these kinds of strikes are really bad," Thompson explains. "Obviously you don't want long shutdowns of entire industries. And they not only are bad for the immediate shutdowns, but they're bad because they tend to reorient the way people view."

What is the beef?

WGA represents approximately 11,500 writers — who work on scripted TV shows, movies, news programs, documentaries, animation, video games and new media content — and they are looking for "compensation, compensation, compensation," according to the organization's negotiating committee.

Streaming is the main issue. The WGA says that while streaming has exploded over the last decade, with more than half of all series writers working in streaming, compensation hasn't caught up. Writers don't think they're being properly compensated for their work on streaming projects, with lower paychecks and less in terms of residuals. Basically, the guideline establishing what writers get paid for streaming was established when streaming services were just starting — and it's evolved into a booming business and they want a better cut.

Why streaming changed everything

Viewers are "in a very different position than they were," during past strikes, says Thompson. Because programming has evolved, especially with the boom of streaming, people who can afford streaming subscriptions could pivot and endlessly watch previously unseen shows while Hollywood hashed things out. "A writer's strike doesn't mean that their Netflix isn't going to connect next time they log on," he explains.

That's not how it was in years past.

"A big writers strike, big production shutdown in the old days meant that after a little while, they ran out of programming and viewers got nothing but reruns," Thompson says. "Now, even if new shows aren't being made, there are so many from the last year, two years, five years, 10 years that one can now go back and stream. You'd never have to watch the same thing twice for the rest of your life."

Because of the "deep bench" on streamers, viewers may say, "'I never saw the second season of White Lotus. I'll do that now.' Or 'that Breaking Bad that everybody talked about? I can start that from the beginning,'" says Thompson. "I mean, there are so many more options now than there were in 2007."

The fact that streaming would be the go-to for many during the strike — when streaming is what is leading to the contract dispute in the first place — isn't lost on Thompson or us.

"The kernel of the thing is: What [makes a strike] a very different experience for most viewers than it would have been pre-streaming, is also the very thing that's making this so complicated," he says.

That's because, "Writers used to make money one way in the old era of how we used to watch television. They made an awful lot of their money when shows reran. Especially when they reran five days a week, they got a piece of that action in residuals," pointing to Seinfeld, Friends and The Big Bang Theory. Now, there are many different ways in which money is made through streaming. So "it's trying to rethink how the whole economy of the industry of entertainment gets readjusted — in who gets paid and how they get paid for what — when the way in which people are consuming this stuff is totally changed."

What a strike means for what you love to watch

Now that the WGA has called for a strike, there will be immediate changes to the shows millions of people love. It will be felt first in late-night and it will go from there. Here's what is changing for morning, afternoon and nightly programming — so far…

Late-night shows: Watchers of Stephen Colbert, Jimmy Fallon, Jimmy Kimmel and Seth Meyers's shows will immediately see the change. The shows, produced daily with no bank, will go dark airing reruns — at least initially.

What will be different this time is that unlike the era of the "late-night wars," with David Letterman and Jay Leno as feuding rivals, is that shows will reportedly take a unified approach. One unidentified showrunner told Deadline, "I have been and will continue to talk to the other shows to see what they're up to." Back during the 2007-2008 strike, Letterman, whose production company produced his The Late Show and Craig Ferguson's The Late Late Show, negotiated a deal with the WGA for those shows to return with their writers. As a result, NBC felt the pressure to bring back The Tonight Show With Jay Leno and Late Night With Conan O'Brien, but they didn't have the same deal. So Leno and O'Brien also returned, sans writers, and had to ad-lib monologues, which got Leno into trouble.

Decisions about Real Time With Bill Maher and Last Week Tonight With John Oliver, both weekly shows also reliant on writers, are expected to be similarly impacted like the nightly late shows, but decisions aren’t expected until later in the week.

Saturday Night Live: Next to late-night, this NBC staple could be impacted the most. SNL is fully reliant on writers and is scripted in the days before it airs live. On Tuesday, SNL canceled its three upcoming May shows due to the writers’ strike and is airing reruns until further notice. It's possible the strike will also affect the show's season finale.

Daytime talk shows: The View, The Talk and Live With Kelly & Mark would likely be uninterrupted because they're interview-heavy and don't have scripted monologues.

Game shows: Some game shows are considered scripted and some are not. For instance, Jeopardy! and Wheel of Fortune use guild writers for clues, so those writers will strike. However, those two shows are taped months in advance so viewers wouldn't immediately notice anything — if at all. They have clues banked well into the future, so production could continue for some time. Plus, the production schedules — Jeopardy! tapes five shows in one day — allows for a speedy catch up if they ever did fall behind. As for The Price Is Right, it wasn’t covered under the guild contract in 2007 and they actually aired extra episodes in primetime.

Daytime soap operas: General Hospital, The Bold and the Beautiful, The Young and the Restless and Days of Our Lives are also on a daily schedule, but usually have a few weeks of banked episodes. Depending on how long the strike lasted, they may have enough material to get through.

In 2007, it got messy when some soaps switched to non-union writers for the duration of the strike, which was deemed unsupportive of the striking writers.

Broadcast scripted shows: Viewers of most half-hour and hour-long comedies and dramas on networks like ABC, NBC and CBS likely won't notice — at first. TV shows with written scripts can proceed as usual. Plus, many network shows wrap up in May, so they're already complete. The timing of this potential strike is on their side — for now. If the strike goes into June or July, when shows resume production, it could delay the start of the 2023-2024 season.

In 2007, because of the timing of the strike being midseason, shows were impacted in different ways. Many had shorter seasons. Some new shows had a harder time finding an audience due to the months-long break in storylines. Some shows that were on the bubble, as far as possible cancellation, were axed sooner with networks more willing to cut their losses and start anew.

Streamer and cable scripted shows: Cable shows, like HBO originals, also work ahead and have been planning for a potential shutdown, so there likely won’t be an immediate impact. For instance, Succession wrapped shooting for the season in February while the finale doesn't air until May 28. David Zaslav, CEO of Warner Bros. Discovery, which includes Warner Bros. film and TV studios and HBO, said last month, "We're assuming the worst from a business perspective," but "we've got ourselves ready. We've had a lot of content that's been produced."

Ditto for Netflix. Co-CEO Ted Sarandos recently said they have a "pretty robust slate of releases" they'll be able to use to get through a potential strike.

Movies: A strike would have to last several months before viewers began to notice an effect on movies. Because the industry works about a year ahead, films for summer and fall are already set. Films with completed screenplays can continue to be made if writers stop writing — at least at the start. Plus, ahead of the possibility of a strike, studios have been stockpiling scripts to work on in case of a shutdown.

Reality shows and news programs: They will not be affected because they are covered by different union contracts. However, there could be more reality programming. In 2007, many networks turned to those so-called "unscripted" shows to fill the gap in their schedules.

As for how long this will last, only time will tell. We'll also see if this becomes a bigger storm as the Directors Guild of America and SAG-AFTRA are also negotiating new contracts with AMPTP, both of which expire on June 30, which could mean multiple industry shutdowns at once.

Editor's note: This story was originally published on April 24, 2023 and has been updated.