The strike is on.
Members of the Writers Guild of America, the people responsible for writing the bulk of network television and movie scripts, dropped their pens at 12:01 a.m. today after failing to reach an agreement with the networks and studios over a new contract.
According to The Associated Press, the first picket lines are set to appear this morning at Rockefeller Center in New York, where NBC is headquartered. In Los Angeles, writers were planning to picket 14 studio locations in four-hour shifts from 9 a.m. to 5 p.m. each day until a new deal is reached.
Writers and producers gathered for negotiations Sunday at the request of a federal mediator. The two sides met for nearly 11 hours before East Coast members of the writers union announced on their Web site that the strike had begun for their 4,000 members.
The contract the WGA had with the major TV networks and movie studios expired Nov. 1. For months, the union has been negotiating with the Alliance of Motion Picture and Television Producers over a new contract. But both sides are at odds over how much of a cut writers should get for online distribution of TV shows and movies, and talks fell apart Wednesday afternoon.
While a writers strike won't wallop the film industry — most movie studios have all the scripts they need for the next year — it could knock out TV. The WGA represents 12,000 writers — the people who make Jay Leno's jokes laughable and "24's" plotlines implausible. Without a contract, they're free to strike; without the writers, broadcasters can't put on the bulk of their prime-time, daytime and late-night programming.
So whether you're an "Office" freak, a "Daily Show" junkie or a "General Hospital" fanatic, here's what the writers strike might mean for you.
Prime-time TV on the broadcast networks — ABC, NBC, CBS, Fox and the CW network — won't feel the effects of a strike immediately. "Prime-time TV programming won't change much until January," said Ben Grossman, the Los Angeles bureau chief of the trade publication Broadcasting and Cable.
That's because network producers have six to seven scripts banked, so if the writers decide to stop writing, they can still shoot episodes and keep their shows going for almost two months. But after that point, reality TV, game shows, repeats and newsmagazines will swoop in to take the place of scripted series.
And the programming might not be pretty. According to Thom Geier, senior editor for Entertainment Weekly, the reality shows tapped to fill prime-time hours include such fare as "Farmer Wants a Wife" and "My Dad Is Better Than Your Dad."
The networks could also drag already popular reality/competition shows onto more nights: That could mean extra episodes of "Dancing With the Stars" and four nights of "American Idol."
They may also look across the pond to England or north to Canada to poach programming from other English-speaking countries. "NBC is flirting with the idea of bringing in episodes of the original British 'Office' to replace new episodes of the American 'Office,'" Grossman said.
One place where audiences likely won't see any change in prime-time programming: cable, both basic and premium. According to Geier, scripted series on networks like FX, Showtime and HBO will probably go on as planned, because they tend to film their seasons well in advance. And reality shows on network TV and cable will not be affected because they don't employ WGA writers. So if you can't have "Gossip Girl," at least you've got "The Hills."
With the writers on strike, late-night laughs might become as elusive as a good night's sleep. "Late night will disappear almost immediately," Geier said. "In the last strike, in 1988, 'Jay Leno' and 'Letterman' stopped almost right away. That will also be true with the 'Daily Show' and 'Stephen Colbert.'"
That's because the late-night shows, including "Saturday Night Live," are often scripted the day they air, the better to get in those topical jabs at the '08 candidates and Britney Spears. In place of new material from the late-night comics, Geier said the networks will likely run repeats and movies.
A writers' strike could all but wash soap operas down the drain. "Soap operas tend to be written pretty close to broadcast, so I can't imagine that they're going to last more than a few weeks," Geier said. "Plus, soap operas have really been taking a hit in terms of audience size. I imagine that a prolonged strike may in fact kill off some of those shows."
But according to Geier, daytime talk shows, unlike late-night TV, will probably go on. Because they're interview-heavy, a lack of writers won't slow down the ladies of "The View," Ellen DeGeneres or the almighty Oprah.
And If/When the Writers Return …
The 1988 writers strike lasted 22 weeks. It was catastrophic: It cost the industry an estimated $500 million and the broadcast networks saw a 9 percent to 10 percent drop in their audience as viewers switched over to cable. Industry insiders predict the effects of a strike now could be just as bad.
New shows and new networks like CW, which launched in 2006, stand to lose the most. "This would be a challenge for the new series that are catching on," Geier said. "It's like being the new kid in school. If the new kid in school goes away for the winter, it's going to be hard for him to get a date to the prom in May."
Not only will a writers strike disrupt the 2007-2008 season, it might also affect next year's TV programming. Audiences might have to wait months for the trysts of "Desperate Housewives" and twists of "Law & Order" to be resolved.
"Depending on how long the strike goes, it could affect the 2008-2009 season. If this is a 22-week strike, it will interfere with next season," said L.A. Weekly columnist Nikki Finke.
And like "Desperate Housewives'" hunk John Rowland, who came back to Wisteria Lane only to discover that Gabrielle had found a new man, once the writers and networks reconcile, they may find that audiences aren't as enamored with their shows as they once were.
"This entire town is waiting to see what happens," Grossman said. "This couldn't come at a worse time for TV."
The Associated Press contributed to this report.