After rejecting what the Alliance of Motion Picture and Television Producers (AMPTP) said was a final offer, representatives of the Writers Guild of America (WGA) called a strike for all the union’s members to begin at 9 a.m. Pacific Time on March 7, 1988.
The origins of the strike went back to late 1987, when producers began demanding that writers accept a sliding scale on residuals–payment received when work is re-broadcast after its original airing–from domestic syndicated reruns of one-hour shows, claiming that syndication prices had dropped. Writers balked at this restriction; they also wanted a bigger share of foreign rights and more creative control over the scripts they were writing. With negotiations stalled, the current contract between the AMPTP and the WGA expired at midnight on March 1, and the strike began a week later.
Some companies got around the strike by signing interim deals with the WGA, including Carsey-Werner Co., producers of The Cosby Show, who were able to continue production on a new sitcom, Roseanne, which shot to No. 2 in the ratings that season. Near the end of July, after the writers rejected a settlement, the entertainment lawyer Ken Ziffren stepped in to run interference between the two sides of the conflict. Along with the producers’ chief negotiator, Nick Counter, Ziffren got both producers and writers to modify their positions in time for a meeting in early August at the headquarters of the AMPTP in Sherman Oaks, California. Sixteen hours later, the strike was over, after the two sides struck a deal by which producers upped the payment for foreign rights and writers agreed to the sliding scale on syndication residuals.
Though it came at a relatively opportune time, as the networks were winding down TV production for the summer, the five-month walkout still had an effect. Overall network ratings dropped 4.6 percent that fall from a year earlier, and many viewers began watching cable channels, which were not affected by the strike because they showed little original programming. Overall, the walkout was estimated to have cost Hollywood some $500 million. One enduring effect of the strike was the increasing ubiquity of so-called “reality” programming. As networks scrambled to fill the holes in their schedules, they relied on such programs as Unsolved Mysteries, which began as an NBC special but was expanded to a regular series by the network during the strike. Fox’s unscripted police reality series COPS made its debut the following year, and such shows would become increasingly popular during the 1990s.