As Writers Guild Talks Stall, a Jittery Hollywood Wonders What's Next

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A strike authorization vote is on tap, but SAG-AFTRA may be waiting in the wings as an intricate dance begins.

The Writers Guild may or may not have deliberately set up its first two weeks of talks with AMPTP studio negotiators to fail, but fail they did, leading the union’s negotiating committee to publicly call on the WGA governing boards to conduct a strike authorization vote.

Whether the failure was the result of tough negotiations, bad faith, clever tactics or simply accidental, the question is: what happens now?

One can be certain the committee hasn't asked for a strike authorization vote without knowing the union would heed the call, especially as guild leadership sits on the committee ex officio. The board of WGA West on Monday night reportedly approved conducting a membership vote; WGA East’s governing council is set to meet on Tuesday, with approval highly likely there as well.

The 2007 strike authorization vote took 18 days via mailed ballots and garnered more than 90 percent support. Assuming a similar process this time around, the parties might not return to the bargaining table until just a week before May 1, when the current contract expires.

If talks don't produce a deal, the AMPTP may decide to continue negotiating with WGA at least until early June before switching to talks with SAG-AFTRA, whose contracts expire June 30.

Or the studio alliance might start playing hardball.

One possible move could be a “last, best and final” offer with a kicker — an expiration date on retroactivity of wage increases. The message to the WGA could look like this: ratify our offer by, say, June 1, and the first year’s wage increases will be retroactive to May 1; otherwise, your wages will stagnate until you ratify and you won’t get retroactivity. Studio negotiators could then move on to start negotiations with the actors while the Writers Guild stews.

There’s recent precedent for retroactivity with an expiration: it’s what the AMPTP offered in 2008 to a then-recalcitrant Screen Actors Guild.

The tactic didn’t bring SAG back to the table quickly, but there’s little doubt that the union lost that fight. By the time SAG made a deal, almost 12 months later, it had missed out on a year of wage increases (which it never got back), lost TV market share to AFTRA, watched its pension and health plans deteriorate, and finally merged with AFTRA in a move that — while desired by SAG’s new leadership — may, ironically, have been made economically compelling by actions of the old guard.

The situation this year is a bit different: there aren’t two competing writers’ unions for producers to play off against each other, and the May TV upfronts will be a fraught affair if networks can’t assure major ad buyers that the fall season will happen as planned.

But on the labor side of that coin, if new series are endangered, the big losers could be showrunners, and they might pull the plug on an impasse or walkout just as they did in the 1988 strike. That walkout lasted nearly six months, but its timing was significant: it started in early March and ended August 7, just in time to save what became a slightly delayed fall season.

If there is a strike this year, it would probably kick off in early May, but there would be a similar pressure to agree on a deal by early August, to give the writers enough time to gin up episodes for the new season and avoid a catastrophic fallout for showrunners, staff writers, companies and networks alike.

What about viewers? If there is a strike, many may just flee to YouTube, Twitch and ESPN, play video games, fiddle with apps, binge on old shows on Netflix and continue to drive up the cable news nets’ Trump-assisted ratings.

Meanwhile, the networks would presumably load up on reruns, specials, sports and reality, as they did during the 1988 strike and 2001 near-strike. And with TV in the doldrums, proponents of premium VOD delivery of movies might take the opportunity to move some theatrical content into homes faster.

The loser in this scenario? Scripted TV. There were 455 scripted original series on the air in 2016. This year, there could be 500. Or maybe not. A kerfuffle with the writers could be the one thing that brings Peak TV crashing back to earth.

You thought there were too many series? Be careful what you wish for.

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