This is Certainly Not the First Writers’ Strike: A Brief History Lesson

Writers strike
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As news of the 2023 Writers Guild of America strike is coming out daily and some shows have already gone dark, you might be thinking that we’ve been here before in America. There have been writers’ strikes in just about every decade with demands for better compensation for writing and residuals. It was in the 1920s that a group of screenwriters first started the Screen Writers’ Guild to help maintain fair working practices for writers. It kept growing into what it is today, a union that makes sure writers and their livelihoods are protected.

One of the first strikes was in 1941 when Disney’s animators joined the Screen Cartoonists’ Guild for profit promised from Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs. In 1960, both writers and actors went on strike. Writers wanted studios to pay into the WGA health and pension funds as well as increase wages and residuals. The Screen Actors Guild went on strike for six weeks, led by then-SAG President Ronald Reagan, interesting how his voting changed against labor unions when he eventually became President of the United States.

writers strike sign


In 1978, the Animation Guild went on strike after some studios began outsourcing animation to lower-wage countries. The strike led to a clause that made studios have to employ a certain number of animators before outsourcing which unfortunately went away in the 1983 strike.

The longest strike came in 1988 which lasted for 22 weeks, with the 1960 strike just a week behind lasting 21 weeks. It all began in 1987 when producers wanted writers to accept a new sliding scale on residuals. Writers didn’t like this and wanted more creative control over the scripts they were pouring their hearts into. When the contract expired and the Alliance of Motion Picture and Television Producers (AMPTP) and the Writers Guild of America (WGA) failed to come up with a compromise, a strike began.

At the time, the strike affected many shows and pushed the start of the fall schedule back until late October and November. Some shows including soap operas continued to air but suffered in quality without experienced script writers. Sports became more popular than ever, with Summer Olympics programming reigning supreme. The WGA offered independent contracts to producers and some shows came back earlier including The Cosby Show, A Different World, The Tonight Show Starring Johnny Carson, and Late Night with David Letterman. Shows such as Moonlighting and Kate & Allie were thought to be canceled due to the audience losing interest after the long hiatus.

The ’80s actually saw three writers’ strikes but things seemed relatively smooth in the ’90s. It wasn’t until 2007 that another strike happened, this time lasting 14 weeks and being named the dawn of reality television. With no writers to work on scripted shows, many networks opted for more reality television shows which only needed producers to string along the storylines. Big shows such as Desperate Housewives, The Office, Breaking Bad, and Ugly Betty were affected and viewers started watching more reality shows including American Idol and Dancing with the Stars. Many of the big shows of the time returned after a long break when the negotiations were complete but had shorter seasons than expected.

BURBANK, CA - JANUARY 02: Writers strike outside 'The Tonight Show With Jay Leno' at NBC Studio on January 2, 2008 in Burbank, California. Unlike his late-night counterpart David Letterman, who reached an agreement with the WGA that allowed his show's writers to return to the job, Mr. Leno reached no such agreement before returning to the air tonight

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The key difference in the 2023 writers’ strike is the popularity of streaming services. Back in 2007, Netflix had just started offering streaming. These days, streaming services are everywhere and shows are often created exclusively for them. Cable is slowly going away yet there is just so much content out there. If this writers’ strike lasts for several months, fans of shows such as Stranger Things and Saturday Night Live will be left waiting. Do you remember any of the writers’ strikes of the past?

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