Writers' Strike 1988: How and Why It Began
In late February 1988, media reported that contract talks with 9000 movie and television writers, members of the WGA union which, by that time, had already had a history of storming out on strike, were coming down to the wire. Hollywood however didn't seem to care.
The timing of the strike was not very fortunate for the WGA. The contract expired on Monday, February 29, 1988 and the writers hit the picket lines by Wednesday, March 8. By this time, however, many prime-time TV series had already had all their scripts for the 1987/1988 season, few were forced to cut their episode orders.
Although there were several issues of concern, the major sticking point appeared to be residual payments to writers when one-hour television series like "Murder She Wrote" or "Miami Vice" are syndicated after their network runs.
The producers insisted that writers be paid residuals on a sliding scale. The writers however preferred the rule from the 1985 contract that the entire amount owed to the writer as a royalty must be paid when the series is sold in even one city.
The Alliance of Motion Picture and Television Producers argued that the market had changed and TV studios could no longer make profit simply by selling a TV show to a TV network. The license fees the networks were willing to pay no longer covered the cost of production and studios ran huge deficits for each episode produced.
A typical one-hour drama would lose about $350,000, although some action-based series like "Hunter" could end up losing as much as $500,000 per episode. The only way a production studio could make a profit was for a show to become a hit and last for at least 4 years, thus putting 100 episodes in the can.
Studios would then be able to sell these 100-episode packages to independent stations (syndication) and finally make profit. In 1988, ratings for one-hour dramas in syndication were very low (compared to half-hour sitcoms like "Three's Company").
Also, for every 100 episode hit the studios were able to make money on, there were many duds canceled before they even ran their original 13-episode orders, thus soaking up profits from other more successful skeins.
The writers, on the other hand, made most of their money on residuals, not the original fee, and such a step back in compensation seemed unacceptable to the Guild. Also, the union claimed only 12 of the 45 hour-long dramas posted significant deficits, whereas the producers said only 3 out of 45 didn't.
Later the focus of the strike shifted to the booming foreign markets. For instance, in many European countries at the time, instead of the official 2 state-run broadcasters, there was suddenly a number of private channels (e.g. Sky in Britain) which heavily relied upon American production. The writers however earned no residuals.
Prior to the 1988 strike, the writers had already gone out on strike for 13 weeks in 1981 over a formula for residuals on original programming made for pay-television (cable). Although the issues appeared important at the time of the strike, the market for original cable programming in the 1980s didn't really take off.
In 1985, the WGA tried to initiate yet another strike over the formula for residuals on movies sold for video cassettes. That strike however collapsed amid dissension within the guild.
The 1988 strike last for 5 months and was the longest strike in the Hollywood history. Will the 2007/2008 strike exceed the record?