The History of the Writers' Strike Hollywood writers are on strike for the first time in two decades. A look back reveals, however, that the seeds of today's walkout were planted by a former generation.
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The History of the Writers' Strike

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The History of the Writers' Strike

The History of the Writers' Strike

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It's DAY TO DAY from NPR News. I'm Alex Chadwick.


And I'm Madeleine Brand.

Now to the Hollywood writers strike. We are in week two of it. It's the first time writers have walked off the job in a generation.

DAY TO DAY senior producer Steve Proffitt covered the last two writers strikes in the 1980s. He reports that they are key to understanding what's going on today.

(Soundbite of TV music themes)

STEVE PROFFITT: The 1980s was a time of great change for the entertainment industry. The emergence of cable TV and the introduction of video cassettes altered where, when and how audiences watched movies and television.

Mr. ALEX BEN BLOCK (Senior Editor, It was the beginning of a long slide down the mountain if you were graphing the audience for broadcast network television.

PROFFITT: Veteran industry reporter Alex Ben Block notes that in the '80s broadcast networks had about a 90 percent share of TV viewers. Today that number hovers around 50.

By the mid-1980s, writers and other unions in Hollywood were beginning to react to changes in technology and they were seeking a share of revenue from the then new media such as videocassettes.

Mr. STEPHEN J. CANNELL (Writer-Producer): We're the creative element that sat down first and thought up the idea and you guys go out and make, you know, a hundred million dollars. How come we don't get some of that?

PROFFITT: That's the way writer and producer Stephen J. Cannell described the feeling of writers back in 1988 in a statement that could have been made today.

Mr. CANNELL: You know, and the producer on the other side of it says because you didn't put any other money up. You bore none of the financial risk.

PROFFITT: It was that sort of basic disagreement that helped sustain a bitter strike that dragged on for five months in 1988, devastating the networks' normally splashy fall premieres.

When it was finally over, Bryan Walton, the Writers Guild chief negotiator, declared victory.

Mr. BRYAN WALTON (Chief Negotiator, Writers Guild of America): I'm very glad that it's over. We're very happy with the contract that came out if it.

PROFFITT: But in fact, the writers failed to get the deal they wanted for home video. Well, they thought maybe next time.

Mr. RICHARD MARCUS (Writer): It's going to come up again in '91. It's going to come up again for the next 20 years.

PROFFITT: That's a very prescient writer, Richard Marcus, speaking to me a generation ago. And here's Alex Ben Block who these days is senior editor at

Mr. BLOCK: Writer would tell you that they were led to believe that if they would make a concession in '88 on home video and accept the formula being offered by the producers, that there will be some give back later on when they saw what the business went. And of course there was no give back; that never happened.

PROFFITT: And that also planted the seeds of today's dispute, because producers have decided to apply that same payment schedule to today's new media - the Internet. And even though many of the members of the Writer's Guild in 2007 don't remember the 1988 strike, they have heard the war stories.

Mr. BLOCK: People have felt that they made a mistake with home video. They were lied to by the producers. And when the next generation distribution platform came along, which is primarily the Internet, they weren't going to be lied to again.

PROFFITT: That may be especially true for writers who were around during the long strike in 1988. People like Ed Solomon - he's a screenwriter whose credits include "Leaving Normal" and "Men in Black." Back in 1988, he was young and single. Now he's back on the picket line, but this time he's got a family to worry about.

Mr. ED SOLOMON (Writer): It's tough. It's a sacrifice, and it's hard, and it's hard on our family. But we feel like we don't really have much of a choice.

PROFFITT: Long-time observers like Alex Ben Block say much has changed in the entertainment business over the last two decades. Still, looking back on the '88 strike, he sees one parallel that doesn't make him optimistic about a quick resolution.

Mr. BLOCK: Each side underestimated the resolve of the other side.

PROFFITT: Block thinks it may be months before the two sides can hammer out a compromise agreement. He and others think that ultimately the producers will offer a better Internet deal. But the longer the strike drags on, the more it will fracture an already distracted television and movie audience. And everyone in Hollywood agrees that's not a good thing.

Steve Proffitt, NPR News.

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