Top TV Stories of 2008: The writers' strike and its aftermath
2008 was a strange one for television. Not because of the intense political and economic coverage, or the 27000 hours of Olympic telecasts, or the fact that Simon Cowell and Paula Abdul held back from killing each other for yet another season. No, the reason for the strangeness was that, at the beginning of the year, the schedule was a bit disjointed. This was thanks to the lengthy writers' strike.
Lasting from early November 2007 until February and costing up to two billion dollars, the WGA strike did something that previous labor disputes had not done to TV in the past: it changed the face of television. These were not cosmetic changes that reverted back to normal once the strike ended. These were changes that altered television as we now it and set the stage for its very uncertain future.
The writers weren't looking for much -- some additional money for their current work, better health and pension benefits, and a deal on "new media" compensation for items like DVDs, webisodoes and video downloads. Unfortunately, the studios weren't budging. So, the Guild authorized a strike, its members approved it, and Hollywood staggered to a halt. The strike affected millions of people, from the writers who were striking, to the actors and directors who turned these scripts into television shows. It's tendrils even touched the caterers, limo drivers, florists and animal trainers who no longer received any calls for their services.
Talk shows like The Tonight Show, The Daily Show and The Colbert Report stopped first, followed by original episodes of scripted programs. A few of these programs, like Heroes, had shortened seasons that ended in November or December; despite the fact that studios had fair warning of the strike and tried to push out as many episodes as possible. Even events outside of the small screen, like the Golden Globes and the winter Television Critics Association meetings, were canceled due to the strike.
The biggest damage came to both mid-season shows and series premieres. Both 24 and Battlestar Galactica were delayed so much that their seasons were delayed until 2009 (for BSG it was the second part of the season that was delayed). New series like Chuck, Life and Pushing Daisies, which were showing promise and gaining a fan base, were unceremoniously ended and didn't return to the network schedules until the 2008-09 season.
By the time 2008 rolled around the schedule was fairly barren. Networks began to fill their schedules with reality programs that would have usually been saved for the summer airings. They also used their corporate synergy to bring in programs from their other platforms. Using their Viacom connections to Showtime, CBS pulled Dexter onto its schedule. Meanwhile, NBC took previously run episodes of USA Network's Psych for their own as well as made arrangements to add the Internet program quarterlife to their primetime lineup. Needless to say, none of these shows lit a fire under the viewers.
Though it looked bleak, there were some bright spots that came out of the strike. Late night talk shows returned with original fare at the beginning of 2008. While David Letterman and Craig Ferguson came back with writers (thanks to a special deal with the WGA), other hosts returned writing their own material. This gave the viewers a chance to see their favorite personalities in the proverbial nude. It also bound them together in a weird partnership. Soon enough, talk show hosts were crossing networks to be guests on competing talk shows. The best of these was the "fight" between Conan O'Brien and the tag team of Jon Stewart and Stephen Colbert.
Another bright spot was the success of a few mid-season series that had, luckily, already completed production. With the lack of scripted programming to fill the primetime lineups the mid-season shows Samantha Who?, Lipstick Jungle, and Eli Stone got a bigger chance to prove their worth. Because of this all of these shows were given a second season (though, for Lipstick and Eli those seasons were short-lived).
The biggest issue to come out of the writers' strike aftermath, and one that continues as we enter 2009, was the loss of viewers. Many network executives thought that the public would return to the big picture box once the studios could churn out new material. Unfortunately, that was not the case. Even when they did return fewer came back, and not just to the newer programs. Long-running shows like Bones, Desperate Housewives and ER lost audience and never got it back even as the 2008-09 season premiered.
There's no doubt that the writers' strike crippled the world of television. As both audience members and writers moved to other media avenues, such as the web and direct-to-DVD releases, the networks were left in a quandary. Combined with the current economic situation, television is probably in one of the most fragile states that it has ever been. What appears out of the dust may be totally different than we remember. If that means no more strikes perhaps it will all be for the better.