When I recall the best shows I’ve seen on TV, I realize they share one thing in common. Whether it’s “All in the Family,” or “The Sopranos,” or “30 Rock,” or “Mad Men,” or “Breaking Bad,” the most important element — the prime mover — is the writing.
Obviously there are other big factors involved in a show’s success, including acting, costuming, editing, production design, and directing. But they’re all led forward by the scripts, which shape each scene while determining the broad direction of the narrative. It’s often noted that movies are director-driven while TV is a writer’s art, since, on TV, directors largely enact the writer’s vision on a weekly basis.
I think about this as we enter a period that could make viewing complicated for TV fans. The Writers Guild of America strike, the first since the 100-day strike in 2007, began on Tuesday, and it may well stretch on. Among other things, writers are seeking more compensation and security at a time when TV has become extremely profitable, when the use of sophisticated AI in scripting needs to be regulated, and when fewer episodes make up a season. Everything has changed with the advent of streaming, and the writers want that reflected in their contract.
Naturally, there are two sides, with the studios laying off workers as streaming subscription numbers decline, as more and more cable cords are getting cut, and as advertising money is disappearing. Wall Street, you are a harsh ruler, one that can make even billionaire executives shake in their booties.
Viewers are finding their favorite late-night shows and some daytime talk shows — two genres that many find comforting and, in terms of the late-night monologues, appealingly timely — are already relying on reruns. “Saturday Night Live,” which had three episodes (hosted by Pete Davidson, Kieran Culkin, and Jennifer Coolidge) lined up for May, is most likely done for the season. In a few weeks, soap operas, which don’t operate far in advance, will shut down.
Most of the network series, including “Abbott Elementary” and all the franchises such as “FBI,” will likely finish out the season, since they’re done filming. But the network fall season, whose episodes are often written in May and June, may well be held up, even if the conflict is resolved by then.
The streaming services are in much better shape than the networks. Just as during the pandemic, they have series banked and, with Netflix in particular, fast access to shows produced in other countries. Eventually, though, even the streamers will not be able to match their current crazed pace of releases if the strike wears on. (Movies work even farther in advance than streamers, and it will take a year or more for the strike to have a visible impact on them.)
So we will need to be patient, as our nighttime balms play the oldies and the wait for the returns of our favorite shows increases. The streaming era has been a great boon for corporate Hollywood, and now the writers are looking for a fair share and protections.
We’ll also need to be inventive, as many of us were during the pandemic, to keep good new shows on our screens. Those of us who depend entirely on Netflix, for example, will want to consider cycling through other services in order to continue a diet of new material. We will need to be proactive, switching among services and researching what’s in their coffers. There are years of shows waiting for you, if you figure out where to find them. Do Apple TV+ one month, Paramount+ the next, and keep going until the crisis is resolved.
On Monday’s “Late Night With Seth Meyers,” the host anticipated the strike with a nod to writers, saying that “strong writing” is “essential to any show where the host, myself, is at best a C-plus performer.”
He also stated the obvious to those in the world of entertainment. “Everybody at the table right now,” he said, “be it from the writers’ side or the studio side, knows that the future of this business is dependent on storytellers.”