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Want to Know What TV Loses Without Writers? Just Look at 2007.

One week into the WGA strike in Hollywood, former writers for ‘Friday Night Lights’ and ‘Gossip Girl’ recall the problems their shows ran into the last time there was a work stoppage

Getty Images/NBC/The CW/Ringer illustration

During the filming of a first-season Friday Night Lights scene set in the middle of a field in Texas, production ran into a cow-sized problem. One of the four-legged background actors, who refused to take direction, kept stealing the spotlight from stars Connie Britton and Kyle Chandler.

Some of the crew saw the farm animal as a continuity-wrecking nuisance. David Hudgins, who cowrote the episode, did not. “They were like, ‘The cow’s not gonna do the same thing every take. Get the cow out of the frame!’” he says. “I was like, ‘No, the cow’s fucking great! Put the cow in!’”

The cow stayed. At one point, it even successfully improvised. “The cow runs up and starts nuzzling Connie’s hand,” Hudgins says. “And she starts laughing, and she just went with it and kept going.” The unexpected moment, however small, might not have happened if Hudgins wasn’t around to offer his opinion. “It wasn’t exactly writing,” he says, “but it kinda was.”

With the Writers Guild of America a week into a strike after the Alliance of Motion Picture and Television Producers rejected requests for higher pay, better working conditions, and the industry’s recommitment to the writing profession, this is what television shows and movies will miss: holistic creative input. Hollywood relies on its writers to do far more than just stockpile scripts. “What gets lost is flexibility,” says writer Joshua Safran, who worked on the original Gossip Girl before becoming the showrunner of the HBO Max series reboot. “On the most recent Gossip Girl, we had a troupe of theater actors who were really great at constantly having changes thrown at them. And much like a comedy might, we were always looking to better a joke or better a moment. That would get lost.”

“It’s really a global thing,” says writer John Zinman, who worked with Hudgins on Friday Night Lights, “running the gamut from working with actors and the director to get the scene right, which often will mean doing on-the-spot rewriting, to being on the location to scout and making sure the location will work for the scene as written or making the necessary changes, to working with the line producer when a day is going long and deciding what we can shorthand and what we really need to get—or even what scenes we can afford to lose entirely and still get the story told.”

To tell stories, you need storytellers. But the studios don’t necessarily see it that way. Though guild rules bar writer-producers from offering any creative input on set during the strike, some of the most expensive, buzzy shows on TV, including Amazon’s The Lord of the Rings: The Rings of Power, HBO’s House of the Dragon, and Disney+’s Andor, will reportedly continue production.

Veteran writers have seen what happens when they’re subtracted from the process. The last strike, which spanned 100 days between November 2007 and February 2008, affected dozens of shows. This time around, the situation is no less perilous. TV stands to lose a lot.

In the wake of the ’07 to ’08 strike, TV networks delayed and made cuts, large and small, to a long list of notable scripted shows. Here’s a quick sampling: Fox pushed the seventh season of 24 back a full year. AMC shrank Breaking Bad’s first season from nine episodes to seven. ABC trimmed down Lost’s fourth season by two episodes. And NBC scrapped more than half of the episodes of the planned multipart second season of superhero drama Heroes (the network also canceled a spinoff).

Friday Night Lights wasn’t spared from the chaos. Thanks to a second life on streaming, the scripted adaptation of Buzz Bissinger’s Texas high school football saga is now a cult classic, but when the drama first aired on NBC, relatively few people watched it. “We were pretty soft in our ratings,” Zinman says. “We’re much more popular now than we were then.”

When the network picked up the show for a second season in 2007, it was a pleasant surprise. “We were ecstatic,” Zinman says. But, he adds, “that came with a dark cloud hanging over the whole beginning of the season: There’s this deadline coming.”

With the strike looming, 15 of the season’s 22 episodes were produced. It was, Hudgins remembers, a rush job. A week before the stoppage, showrunner Jason Katims asked him if he could take on one more episode. “I said, ‘Well, sure, of course. What’s it gonna be about?’” Hudgins says. “He said, ‘Well [executive producer] Pete Berg wants to be in it. He wants to act in it.’ Oh, what does he want to do? He said, ‘He has two requests: One, he wants to fly a helicopter, and two, he wants to beat up Kyle Chandler.’ And so I said, ‘OK.’ We made him Connie Britton’s wheeler-dealer ex-boyfriend who blows into town, and then we did a scene in a restaurant where they got in a fistfight. And it was hilarious.”

Hudgins finished the script in time—and then the strike started. The Friday Night Lights crew picketed as a group. “We walked together, a lot of us from the show, and the big question was: What’s this gonna mean for the show?” Zinman says. “We were hearing all kinds of rumors. Networks were gonna take this opportunity to cut quote-unquote ‘dead wood.’ ... There was just this huge sense of uncertainty.”

After the strike began, the network miraculously didn’t cancel FNL. But it did cut Season 2 down to 15 episodes. “May the Best Man Win,” the episode that Hudgins wrote at the 11th hour, ended up as the year’s finale. If it seemed like a strangely abrupt closer, that’s because it was.

Looking back, Hudgins adds, “I think the audience was pretty forgiving.” He does confirm, however, that the season’s most infamous plot development—in which Landry, the show’s most gentle character, brutally kills a man who’s attacking Tyra—had nothing to do with the stoppage. “Somebody was posting last week about how [a] Season 2 story line of Friday Night Lights was so bad, and it was all because of the strike,” Hudgins says. “Well, actually, we came up with that story before the strike.”

The idea that the strike led to poor narrative choices—Friday Night Lights and Heroes are often cited as shows from that era hurt by the stoppage—is, as TV critic Emily St. James pointed out last week, often a result of revisionism. It also misses the point: that it’s hard for writers to do their jobs well when executives cut their resources. “On serialized dramas—that’s what Friday Night Lights was—we had an arc planned for the end of that season,” Hudgins says. “And it just came to an end. Literally, Jason’s like, ‘Write an episode with Pete and a helicopter where he fights Kyle, and that’ll be our 15.’ All the story planning went away.”

If they had the planned number of episodes to work with, the writers of FNL might have been able to work out a better-developed and more satisfying conclusion to Season 2. Without a full slate, they were stuck with the impossible task of trying to do more with less.

In the years since the last strike, TV peaked in terms of volume, as the arrival of streaming platforms led to an unprecedented demand for content. But despite market caps in the billions and the promise of creative control, writers have never felt more marginalized. Pay hasn’t risen to match inflation. The AMPTP rejected the WGA’s demand for residuals based on viewership and shot down the guild’s proposal to regulate the usage of artificial intelligence to write or rewrite material. It also refused to counter the WGA demand that writers in “mini-rooms,” small teams temporarily hired to develop shows before they’re green-lit, be guaranteed at least 10 consecutive weeks of work.

The studios’ current stance in negotiations with the writers is so glaring because the writers are, well, crucial to the product. “The conversation that happens between the director and the showrunner is what makes the show feel of a piece when you’re looking at all of its episodes when it’s been directed by different people,” Safran says. “The one constant person is the showrunner, so if you eliminate the showrunner, it doesn’t even matter what line of dialogue needs to be changed on set. You are taking away the creative director of the entire show. You’re taking away the voice of the entire show. And that is the hardest thing that I think will be felt.”

Like Friday Night Lights, the original Gossip Girl was interrupted by the last strike. “We had finished shooting Episode 10, and we had two more episodes, 11 and 12, that shot after the strike began,” he says. “So we were racing the weekend before to finish Episodes 11 and 12 and lock them. We wrote 12 before 11, I think, because we just couldn’t get 11 right. The first season of a show, especially for broadcast, you’re kind of adjusting as you go.”

When Episodes 11 and 12 of Gossip Girl were filmed, there was no writer on set. To understand what that absence can do to a show, look no further than how Gossip Girl was shaped by writers who had been on set before the strike—the ones who noticed the sparks between Leighton Meester and Ed Westwick and accordingly changed the trajectory of the entire series. “Chuck and Blair weren’t a thing in the pilot,” Safran says. “But because of the chemistry of those actors we were able to witness, we could write to it.” Without writers present, he adds, “flexibility in terms of where certain characters will go gets really lost.”

Narrative adaptation and problem-solving are important, but the reasons to have writers on set go far beyond that. “There are so many intangibles,” Zinman says. “For one, having writers on set, especially younger writers, is instructive to the whole process of what you’re actually setting in motion when you write something, so you become experienced as to what your words actually get translated into. … There are just the practical production realities that, as a creative writer, you might not have any idea about until you’re on set and you see it in the flesh.”

Safran adds: “You’re at a location, and you can’t get the whole scene the way that you wanted to because it took too long to load in. Or you found a place that’s better to shoot something, and you need a line of dialogue changed. I know that sounds minor, but [those instances] really stack up. And also, oftentimes, especially on newer shows, you’re getting notes from the studio and the network while you’re shooting.”

Eliza Clark, the showrunner of FX’s postapocalyptic drama Y: The Last Man, tweeted last week that she gives a seven-page show guide to her writers on every series that she works on. “On-set writers are there to collaborate with every department to get the story told,” she said. “We know what happens next. Writing doesn’t end until the episode airs. The fact that these companies don’t understand this just shows you how little they know about production.”

In 2007, Hudgins recalls, his bosses at least seemed concerned about banking as much material as possible before the strike. But he didn’t sense that in the lead-up to the current stoppage. “I’m in network television right now,” says Hudgins, now the showrunner of CBS’s FBI: Most Wanted. “I’m running a Dick Wolf crime procedural. So, cranking out 22 episodes, feeding the machine. And the studio wasn’t saying, ‘Oh shit, we’ve got to do everything we can to avoid this.’”

Hudgins isn’t convinced that TV executives truly believed the stoppage would happen. “I think the studios underestimated the resolve,” he says. “As soon as I saw the authorization vote of 98 percent, I said, ‘I think there’s gonna be a strike.’ And here we are.”

The writers who went through it 15 years ago know that there may be a long battle ahead of them. Safran had a firsthand look at the toll it took on his peers. “There’s an emotional exhaustion that happens, especially when—obviously, you’re talking to a writer—it’s so clear what could be done and it’s not being done,” he says. “Striking is emotionally devastating. It’s facing the fact that you are not being valued the way that you feel you should as a collective. It’s one thing to be like, ‘I should be paid more.’ Anybody could feel that way. But we’re talking about a collective of people who are not being valued for supporting an entire system to make billions and billions and billions of dollars. When you have to fight just to get your basic rights, that’s draining and sad.”

At this point, it’s still unclear when (or if) the studios will budge. “They need writers to create; that’s the whole point,” Hudgins says. “If they’re not even going to come to the table, then what the fuck are we doing?”

Based on what happened in 2007 and 2008, though, it’s clear that the quality of the product will start to suffer. The writers have seen it happen before—they hope it won’t again.


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