How the 2007-08 Writers’ Strike Changed ‘The Office’ and ‘Breaking Bad’
The last time the Writers Guild of America went on strike against the Hollywood studios was in November 2007, which feels like a million generations ago. George W. Bush was still president; the broadcast networks still had an enormous footprint on the pop-culture landscape; and House of Cards, the first high-profile series made directly for streaming, was still six years away.
In both cases, the writers are picketing over transformations to the industry that have made it exponentially more difficult for writers to make a living. In 2007, it was about the way that DVD sales and video on demand were quickly replacing rerun syndication as the places where the real money was made, and the writers wanted their fair share of that. This time, there’s a wide swath of concerns, including streaming residuals, the emergence of AI, and the proliferation of “mini rooms” that employ fewer writers for much shorter periods of time. This makes it harder for writers to make a living, or even qualify for guild health insurance; one writer I know suggested that the studios want to treat every WGA member like an Uber driver. And it’s harmful to the creative process. In the good old days, large writing staffs allowed future series creators to figure out the nuts and bolts of making television; an otherwise unremarkable network cop procedural like CBS’ Nash Bridges trained the showrunners of future hits like The Shield, Lost, and The Walking Dead. Take that infrastructure away, and you have a lot of people who may know how to write but don’t know how to actually oversee a big production.
The last strike lasted about three months. Because the two sides are fighting over so many more issues this time — and because every other Hollywood guild will look to the results of this negotiation when their own deals come up for renewal soon — we could be in for a significantly lengthier work stoppage. But on Day One, we thought it was worth revisiting some of the odds and ends from the ’07 dispute.
Feeling the pain early, or late?
This strike should take longer for viewers to feel the effect. In 2007, the great majority of scripted television was being produced for the broadcast networks, which make their shows very close to when they air. By January, ABC, NBC, et al. had largely run out of original episodes, and had to resort to a mix of reruns and oddities from other outlets to fill airtime. (CBS, for instance, reran heavily edited episodes of Dexter from corporate sibling Showtime, while NBC tried airing Quarterlife, a web series from the creators of thirtysomething — which, ironically, was originally developed for television before ABC passed — but the audience was so uninterested that it was canceled after only a single episode aired.) Some network shows eventually returned with new episodes in the spring, while others went away until the following fall, if not longer. (24 took all of 2008 off, other than a one-shot TV movie called 24: Redemption, because the strike had so completely disrupted their production schedule. Today, year-plus hiatuses for series — particularly on streaming — have become unfortunately familiar, and some of those may be especially long coming out of this strike.)
Things will be different this time. The broadcast network season ends in a few weeks, with all the remaining episodes already completed. Beyond that, though, more eyeballs are going to cable and streaming, whose business model involves entire seasons being completed before they debut, sometimes well before. As happened in the early pandemic, Netflix and its peers have so much already in the can that it will be months before anyone notices a significant decrease in viewing options.
Some shows — like HBO’s House of the Dragon — will reportedly attempt to continue filming new seasons without the benefit of on-set writers, hoping that the scripts they have will be shootable as is. But television writing often involves lots of last-minute rewriting, sometimes even on set as directors and producers can see what isn’t working, and none of that will be possible here. Back in 2007, a number of shows raced to film episodes based on whatever scripts they had in some form; many of those were all but impenetrable when they aired.
The bad and the Breaking Bad.
Many shows suffered from the strike disrupting their seasons. The whimsical ABC fantasy mystery Pushing Daisies seemed like a budding hit in the fall of ’07; by the time it came back in ’08, viewers had largely forgotten about it, even though it lasted another season. Many seasons were cut short, while some shows like The Office eventually came back in the spring, but with shorter overall seasons than normal. According to a feature in The Atlantic, “During the 2007 writers’ strike, [Steve] Carell, in a show of solidarity, called in sick with a case of ‘enlarged balls.’ Without the show’s star, production on new episodes was quickly abandoned.” The quality of NBC’s Heroes, meanwhile, fell off a cliff. Another acclaimed NBC series, Friday Night Lights, was attempting to pull out of the disastrous creative hole it had dug for itself early in the second season — remember that time Landry murdered a guy and Tyra helped him hide the body? — when they weren’t allowed to make any more episodes.
But a few others benefited from the strike in various ways, most famously Breaking Bad, which had to end its first season abruptly after only seven episodes had been shot. Legend has it that the strike saved the life of Jesse Pinkman, since Vince Gilligan was planning to kill him off before reconsidering over that hiatus. The truth is, Gilligan had already decided to spare Jesse by that point, having seen how great Aaron Paul was in the role. But as Gilligan and Peter Gould explained to me years later, their two big potential ideas for the end of that season — one involving Skyler White discovering Walt’s secret after drug dealers invaded their home looking for Heisenberg, the other with Walt watching Tuco Salamanca murder Steve Gomez — could have proved disastrous if either had been filmed. (“It would have been a great scene,” Gould said of the home-invasion pitch, “and I don’t know where the hell we would have gone after that.”) Instead, they had an extra amount of time to tinker with what was working and what wasn’t, and to return for their second season with a much clearer handle on the characters and the stories.
And even on a smaller scale, a number of shows that would have otherwise been canceled after half a season got to stick around for a while, because the networks were desperate for any kind of original programming. One of those, the low-rated NBC cop drama Life with Damian Lewis, even got a second season, in part because the episodes that got to air during the strike demonstrated that it was coming into its own creatively.
A not-Horrible silver lining.
Writers spent most of their days during the ’07 strike on the picket line. But in their off-hours, some began looking for ways to flex their artistic muscles without violating the union’s cause. The most famous of these side projects was Dr. Horrible’s Sing-Along Blog, a three-part miniseries created by Joss Whedon, his brothers Zach and Jed, and his sister-in-law Maurissa Tancharoen. Starring Neil Patrick Harris, Nathan Fillion, and Felicia Day, Dr. Horrible was a musical told from the point of view of a supervillain (Harris) frustrated that his idiotic heroic nemesis (Fillion) was so beloved. First streaming on a Dr. Horrible website and later being available on iTunes and DVD, it was an early trailblazer for the idea of creators bypassing the traditional distribution pipeline when economic conditions are less than favorable.
The ring-spinning seen ‘round the world.
Late-night talk shows have writing staffs of their own, and SNL, Seth Meyers, Jimmy Kimmel, and the other hosts have announced that their shows will go on hiatus for the moment to see what happens with the strike. This is what happened in 2007, but after a few weeks, the late-night shows went back on the air without writers, as the hosts tried to fill the non-interview time however they could without the benefit of elaborate sketches or monologues. For Conan O’Brien, the strike episodes were arguably the high point of his entire tenure at NBC. Determined to not do anything that seemed remotely like something that he could produce with the help of his writers, he instead resorted to inane ideas like seeing how long he could make his wedding ring spin on his desk, or flying over the heads of the studio audience on a zip line. It was nakedly unscripted silliness, relying entirely on the force of its host’s personality, and it was pretty great.
What if they threw an awards show and nobody came?
The ’07 strike concluded in time for the 2008 Academy Awards, hosted that year by Jon Stewart, to go on more or less as planned. Other awards shows from that season weren’t as lucky. Most notably, the ’08 Golden Globes ceremony was replaced by a no-frills televised press conference where the names of the winners were announced. Mad Men star Jon Hamm won the drama actor award, and for years that was the only famous acting trophy he received for playing Don Draper, until he finally got the Emmy for the show’s final season, flopping onto the stage as if he couldn’t believe it had actually happened in a venue where people could see him accept. The timing of the strike for the moment doesn’t put any awards shows at risk. But this year’s Emmy ceremony is scheduled for Sept. 18; this strike would only have to last about a month longer than the last one to put the Emmys in jeopardy.
The truth about reality.
Finally, another of the legends about the ’07 strike is that it was responsible for the explosion in reality television. But as my friend Emily St. James — a former TV critic who had begun her first-ever day in a TV writers’ room Monday, right before the strike began — has pointed out, that’s not correct:
Today, it’s not as if there is a lack of reality TV on broadcast, cable, or streaming. There will probably be even more greenlit to fill in some of the gaps, but they’ll all have an uphill climb competing for attention against the Housewives, Love Is Blind, and the other established players.
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Also? As Emily notes, most of these shows employ writers of their own, just not ones who are members of the WGA. If they organize, then we’re basically down to news and live sports.
Stay strong. This could take a while.
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