Writers’ Strike: Impact and Implications

strikeWith the writers’ strike now underway, we still do not have a full handle on specific programming strategies of all the broadcast networks. But we do have enough information to predict how audience levels might be affected.

2008 Is Not 1988
The Writer’s strike in 1988 lasted for 22 weeks, and resulted in about a 9 percent decline in primetime viewing to the broadcast networks. Today’s media landscape, however, is substantially different. But so too is the broadcast viewing environment.

  • In 1988, the average home had fewer than 30 TV channels, and none could receive 100 channels. Today the average household has more than 100 channels (most of them on cable or satellite). Obviously there was no downloadable TV content and no video streaming. These factors would seem to indicate a greater decline in broadcast viewing this time.
  • On the other hand, back in 1988, the non-sweeps months of December, January, and March, only had a combined 14 percent repeats in primetime. February only had 7 percent repeats. Over the past three seasons, December, January, and March averaged 36 percent repeats, while last season, February was at an all-time high of 35 percent repeats. So people are used to a good chunk of post-November repeats on the broadcast networks, Additionally, we didn’t have reality shows in 1988 (in fact, Cops debuted during the strike that year). So the overall impact on ratings may not be as great as some fear.

Impact on Programming
The first programming to be immediately affected by the strike was Late Night, with Letterman, Leno, and Kimmel immediately going into repeats. For the first few days of the strike, their ratings are already down more than 10 percent, and that should only get worse as the strike progresses.
Of course, they could resume without their monologue segments before the strike ends (as happened in 1988), but it doesn’t seem likely this time around. NBC has indicated that its late night non-writing staffs will be laid off next week, and is considering using guest hosts for Leno and Conan starting November 19th to avoid this. The question, of course, is will they be able to get substitute hosts and guest actors to cross the picket lines? CBS’s Letterman and ABC’s Kimmel are in the same situation.

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