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How a Hollywood writers’ strike can derail a great TV show

The industry is bracing for another work stoppage amid tense contract negotiations. The last one led to a bizarre season of ‘Friday Night Lights.’

Kyle Chandler as Coach Taylor in “Friday Night Lights.” (Joanne Lee/The Washington Post; Bill Records/Everett Collection; Reed Saxon/AP)
10 min

In the Season 2 premiere of the high school football drama “Friday Night Lights,” a kindhearted boy commits a murder.

After exiting a convenience store in small-town Texas, Landry (played by a young Jesse Plemons) sees a man attacking his friend Tyra (Adrianne Palicki) in the parking lot. Landry rushes over and, after a brief struggle, grabs a metal pipe and strikes the back of the attacker’s head. The man falls to the ground, dead. Still in shock, Landry and Tyra proceed to dump the body in a nearby river.

Viewers at home were just as stunned. Did Landry just kill a guy? The NBC drama, based on H.G. Bissinger’s acclaimed nonfiction book, had debuted in fall 2006 to critical applause for its naturalistic storytelling. The Landry-kills-a-guy storyline strayed from the established tone and was “universally disliked,” recalled showrunner Jason Katims. It wasn’t the only eyebrow-raising Season 2 plotline, either, but the writers had a plan to bring everything back “to the show people loved,” according to Katims.

Then, calamity struck: The Writers Guild of America (WGA) went on strike.

Fighting for a stake in what was dubbed “new media” (e.g., online downloads and on-demand streaming), roughly 12,000 film and television writers represented by both branches of the labor union participated in the action against the Alliance of Motion Picture and Television Producers (AMPTP). The 100-day strike, which began in November 2007, shut down numerous television productions and cost the Los Angeles County economy an estimated $2.5 billion. The WGA won jurisdiction over writing for the internet, a new frontier for original content.

It could all happen again, as Hollywood is bracing for a potential sequel to the strike amid another round of high-stakes contract negotiations. That truncated season of “Friday Night Lights” remains an awkward testament not only to how a labor dispute can affect what we see on our screens, but also to how it can affect the people who produce the work. This time around, the union has proposed a significant overhaul of how writers are compensated in the streaming era, which the major networks and studios represented by the AMPTP are likely to push back on.

A short documentary that uncovers the hidden dangers of movie and TV production. (Video: Lindsey Sitz, Ross Godwin/The Washington Post)

Streaming TV is having an existential crisis, and viewers can tell

The current agreement expires May 1. WGA West President Meredith Stiehm told The Washington Post shortly before negotiations began March 20 that rumors of another strike authorization vote were premature. Still, the possibility looms. People in all corners of the industry are mentally preparing. Stiehm said the sentiments driving the nervous chatter might be “more intense this year, because the writers are so unified and the issues are so serious.”

Plus, memories of the 2007-2008 strike persist. “Friday Night Lights” was one of most prominent series to have its season cut short that year. The writers had completed scripts for 15 of 22 planned episodes when the strike began. They never got the chance to write those final episodes, even after the action ended and a new contract was ratified in February 2008. The season ended with the 15th episode in “a very random way,” said Katims, whose feelings toward the strike are “complicated.”

As showrunner, Katims felt a responsibility to look after the well-being of the more than 100 people employed by the production. But as a guild member who believed in the bold action, he had to make peace with the fact that a couple of episodes of Season 2 would have to be completed without him after the strike began in the midst of shooting Episode 13. The writers were not only advocating for fairer pay but also for their place in a changing industry.

“At that time, it was about the internet. It was before Netflix [took hold], before all these things. It was prescient,” Katims said. “Now, it’s about streaming and the fact that the way television is made has fundamentally changed. There are fundamental changes in how writers’ careers go. … It’s rapidly, rapidly evolving.”

Hollywood is one massive group project, and writers help keep it moving. Allison Liddi-Brown, a prolific television director who worked on several episodes of “Friday Night Lights” throughout its five-season run, credited writers with driving much of the innovation in modern television, dating back to “The Sopranos.”

“This is TV?” she said. “We’re making magic again and it’s just getting better and better and better, and it’s because of the creative force of writers. If it’s not on the page, none of us have anything.”

Developed by Peter Berg, “Friday Night Lights” was heralded upon its series premiere as “extraordinary in just about every conceivable way.” One critic said it had the potential to be “great — and not just television great, but great in the way of a poem or painting.” The football players were relatable, and the obstacles faced by their new coach, Eric Taylor (Kyle Chandler), compelling. Although the show’s sophomore outing wasn’t received as well, viewers held out hope: It could find its footing again.

Liddi-Brown directed the ninth episode of Season 2, titled “The Confession” after Landry admitting to local police that he killed the man who attacked Tyra. The episode wasn’t directly affected by the strike, but Liddi-Brown remembered a “heavy” sense of worry plaguing productions “for months ahead of time.”

That feeling hit the lower ranks especially hard. Aaron Rahsaan Thomas, co-creator of the CBS procedural “S.W.A.T.,” these days believes that, “in a business that tends to run on fear and anxiety a lot of the time, few big changes really get made without a figurative threat of violence, so to speak.” But looking back at his time working on “Friday Night Lights,” he said, “that perspective wasn’t necessarily there yet. I was concerned about paying my bills.”

Thomas, who was just starting out, had relished the opportunity to learn from more experienced colleagues in the room. He wrote the 14th episode, which escalated some of the show’s trademark teen drama (including Landry ditching his new love interest for a jealous Tyra). It turned out to be the penultimate script of the season; the next episode — the unplanned finale, which even introduces a new character, played by Berg himself — left much to be resolved.

As the probability of a strike grew during the season, Thomas began to wonder whether his career would end before it ever really began. Everyone was spooked by the unknowability of new media. Thomas’s peers had “heated debates” over “whether or not there would be the same avenues to build careers that there were for writers before us.”

Similar worries exist today over the increasingly prevalent concept of a “mini-room,” in which a smaller group of writers is hired to draft scripts for a show that may or may not go to production. Buoyed by the on-demand nature of streaming, mini-rooms present network and studio executives with a cheaper, more flexible alternative to the traditional pilot process.

According to Katims and Thomas, mini-rooms are subpar training grounds for younger writers, who are often paid less than they would be otherwise. Because these writers may no longer work on a show by the time it goes into production, they risk missing out on the chance to pick up producing skills on set. The WGA previously advised that mini-rooms can be “unpredictable” and has proposed setting standards related to the size and duration of writers’ rooms.

“Even though the gross number of job opportunities is greater, the quality of those opportunities has diminished — just as far as having longevity on a show, having opportunities to gain the necessary experience to become producers,” Thomas said.

Despite all the critical acclaim, “Friday Night Lights” suffered in ratings. NBC aired the 15th and final episode of Season 2 in February 2008, mere days before WGA members voted to end the strike and return to work. Katims and his staff were unsure what this meant for them; their show had found itself on the bubble.

“We were left in this precarious situation,” Katims said. “The fact that the second season ended abruptly the way it did, that was … probably a contributing factor to why the show almost didn’t make it.”

Shortly after Season 2 ended, NBC worked out a Hail Mary deal: The network would share production costs for a third season of “Friday Night Lights” with DirecTV, the satellite service that would offer exclusive access to the show in the fall before the same episodes began airing on NBC the following February. The deal was unprecedented, a glimpse into the future.

At the time, Katims wasn’t thinking about “how radically things would be changing in television.” He was just relieved to keep telling this story, and the DirecTV deal gave him three seasons to get things back on track. He quickly did, with Season 3 jumping ahead nine months, all murders a distant memory. By the time “Friday Night Lights” ended in 2011, Katims said, “we got to do everything I would’ve ever wanted to creatively do with the show.”

Deals like the one NBC struck helped shape a new landscape. The WGA wasn’t sure what new media would look like at the time of the strike but fought for it anyway. “If we hadn’t won that — 50 percent of our work right now is on streaming services and platforms. We wouldn’t have been covered for that,” said Stiehm, the WGA West president.

Well into the streaming era, that landscape is less hazy. Shorter season orders and evolving hiring practices have “wreaked havoc with the way writers are paid,” according to Cynthia Littleton, co-editor in chief of Variety and author of “TV on Strike: Why Hollywood Went to War Over the Internet.” She referred to the ongoing negotiations as “Part 2” of what the WGA and its members accomplished in 2008. They planted their flag in the world of streaming, and now “have to go many layers deeper and figure out, truly, how to change their compensation systems to meet the demands of the new moment,” she said.

In a statement alluding to talk of a potential writers’ strike, the AMPTP noted that “the goal is to keep production active so that all of us can continue working.” It said the represented companies “approach this negotiation and the ones to follow with the long-term health and stability of the industry as our priority.”

Writers such as Thomas might argue that they are advocating for the very same thing.

“That’s the fight now,” he said. “To preserve and protect the very nature of what it is to build a career.”

This story has been updated.