When things are running smoothly you may not feel that Hollywood has much of an effect on your life. But when it’s put on hold, terrible things can happen. Thirty years after the 1988 writers’ strike began – and ten years after the 2007 one ended – we unpick the peculiar and profound effect that the Writers Guild of America has inadvertently had on media, pop culture and international politics.
Thirty years ago this month, the Writers Guild of America embarked upon the longest strike of its history.
At the heart of this dispute was a disagreement over residuals (the industry term for repeat fees that are paid to actors, directors and writers whenever a film or show of theirs is re-run). The studios wanted to cut them, claiming that repeats weren’t anywhere near as profitable as writers always imagined them to be. The writers, naturally, wanted to boost them.
What followed was a five-month stand-off where, on March 7th 1988, roughly 9,000 screenwriters downed tools and refused to give film studios and TV networks any new scripts until the issue was resolved.
Unless you’re particularly interested in the effects that evolving technologies have had on writers’ royalty payments over the last half-century, then that’s probably as much as you’ll ever need to know about the Guild’s demands – but the nuts and bolts of why the 1988 Writers’ Strike was called aren’t nearly so interesting as what ended up happening as a result.
In response to union writers withholding their services, one TV network decided to take a punt on a new type of show. One that didn’t require the work of scriptwriters. Not only would this show help to revitalise the lagging network in question, it would also give rise to an entirely new genre of television show that would later come to dominate the schedules.
Twenty years later, the WGA went on strike again. Thanks to the rise of digital streaming platforms the issue of residual payments had flared up once more, but the writers had another reason this time too.
The Guild felt that they deserved jurisdiction over “story producers” – the people on reality shows who drew out the plot lines for each episode. As they were effectively scriptwriters in all but name, the WGA argued, they should be entitled to the protections of the Guild’s Basic Minimum Agreement and allowed to join their union.
Naturally, the networks weren’t going to give these story producers up without a fight. Reality TV wasn’t just successful, it was cheap to produce, simple to source and endlessly possible to repeat, repurpose and repackage. They could take the basic framework and apply it to any number of situations.
More importantly though, the ever-present threat that they could simply flood the TV schedules with reality shows – doing away with union writers altogether – would help the networks retain the upper hand in any future strike negotiations. It was the ace up their sleeve.
When the WGA moved to strike in 2007/08, the networks decided to play it. To fill the shortfall in scripted programmes, a slate of reality shows was ordered – including one significant order from NBC, reinstating a show that they had otherwise been all but ready to cancel: The Apprentice.
Little did they know that this would inadvertently install Donald Trump in the Oval Office ten years later.
But before you curse the Writers Guild of America for consigning us a fate where the only thing standing between us and thermonuclear heat-death is a heavily armed militia of eighth grade geography teachers – the effect that reality TV has had on Western culture expands way beyond the career path of Donald Trump.
The wider story takes in the rise of Fox TV, a crack addicted baby, former First Lady Nancy Reagan, Kim Kardashian, Gordon Brown, the legend of Al Capone, InfoWars, Omarosa, Piers Fucking Morgan and ends – curiously – with the recent school shooting in Parkland, Florida.
It’s not a straight line exactly. In fact, it’s rather convoluted – and at times it might feel like it’s getting a little faint. But if you’re prepared to come with us, we’ll tell it as clearly as we can in four parts.
Part I/ Journalusting Repugnance
Tracing reality TV right back to its roots leads us to the door of John Langley, a documentary filmmaker who spent the best part of a decade trying to convince a network to pick up his idea for a TV show. The show is currently in its 30th season and will be remembered as one of the most influential shows of all time but, had it not been for the 1988 writers’ strike, it might never have made it to air…
Part II/ The Name Of The Scientist
NBC seemed pretty much primed to cancel The Apprentice in 2007. Ratings had been disappointing, so its seventh season was left off the Fall schedule – causing host Donald Trump to flounce off in a huff. But the 2007 writers’ strike gave NBC boss Jeff Zucker pause for thought. A cheap reality show that needed no union writers and a host with another year left on his contract? It felt like a no-brainer – but little did Zucker know that he was creating a monster…
Part III/ Surreal World
The phrase “structured reality” has come to refer to semi-scripted reality shows where producers consciously guide the story to create drama rather than strictly documenting real life. Its critics suggest that its facile, dishonest and distracting fodder for a mindless public. There’s evidence to suggest that it’s actually making us a little more savvy and sophisticated – and it might have changed the way we treat politics forever.
Part IV/ Strike Three
InfoWars conspiracy theorist Alex Jones has long and inglorious history of branding school shootings as staged hoaxes – but, this time, in suggesting that the survivors of the Parkland massacre are crisis actors, he has had his YouTube channel put at serious risk of shutdown. Could it be that the problem and the solution both stem from reality TV?