How Would a Writers’ Strike Impact Unscripted?

David Lyle Says a Strike Could Relieve Some Cable Channels That Have Ventured Into Scripted

Written by Meagan Kashty

This article first appeared on Realscreen on April 26, 2017.

U.S. unscripted producers are prepping to gear up production as a writers’ strike looms over the entertainment business.

“I already know several production companies in the unscripted realm saying they’ve been approached by networks to accelerate or further develop projects that were already in the pipeline in case this happens,” says John Ford, general manager of the Nonfiction Producers Association, a professional body created to serve the non-fiction TV business in the U.S.

“Everyone seems to be on high alert right now.”

The tense atmosphere comes as members of the Writers Guild of America, the union representing writers in the motion picture, broadcast, cable and new media industries, voted Monday (April 24) 96% in favor of a strike.

With the current contract set to expire May 1, a walkout could start on May 2 should negotiations between the union and studios prove unsuccessful.

Ford says that should a strike occur, in the short-term we’re likely to see more extensions on existing popular unscripted shows ordered by networks that need to fill more airtime. But, he adds, unscripted prodcos are not likely to be caught off-guard.

“They are constantly in development year-round with new and existing projects,” he says.

There’s a certain amount of content in unscripted entertainment that’s already in pre-production for the summer, adds David Lyle, president of Pact U.S., the organization representing U.S. content and TV producers.

“It’s the kind of thing where instead of recording eight or 12 episodes, maybe you record 40,” he says. “Some of the shows like Survivor or The Amazing Race that are on twice a year could become three times a year — they’re the ones in the wings that can quickly be brought into production for broadcast and cable.”

Lyle also says a strike could provide some relief to cable channels that have recently gotten into the expensive world of scripted television.

“In these times when all cable channels are fearing loss of viewership, they may not be absolutely saddened by having to put some of their expensive scripted projects on hold as they pursue more inexpensive options.”

“I think the community that produces unscripted at PACT are very ready to provide, if called,” he says.

Ford says while prodcos don’t want a strike, should networks need them, they’re ready to help.

The most recent writers’ strike in 2007 lasted 100 days.

At the time, CBS ordered additional seasons of its flagship reality competition shows to fill airtime.

Ben Silverman, current chair and co-CEO of Propagate Content, was co-chair of NBC at the time. During the strike, he revived Donald Trump’s reality competition show The Apprentice in a new iteration — The Celebrity Apprentice (pictured).

Lyle says that at the time, networks experimented with a number of unscripted series. “Some of them were successful and some of them weren’t, but it certainly led to an uptick in production.”

Negotiations resumed Tuesday (April 25) following an eight-day break, as the union and the Alliance of Motion Pictures and Television Producers debate over issues including compensation and health care.

No public comment has yet been made on progress between the parties, however, as both the WGA and the Alliance of Motion Picture and Television Producers are observing a media blackout.