TV Business Faces Further Contraction As Marketplace Reopens: “The Bubble Has Burst”

After 148 days of a WGA strike that ground production to a halt and put tens of thousands out of work, everyone in Hollywood has a reason to celebrate this week after the guild and the studios reached a tentative agreement Sunday night and the strike came to an end this morning. The WGA leadership, which approved the deal yesterday and sent it to the membership for a vote, has called “exceptional” the agreement, which includes AI guardrails, viewership-based residuals, writers room minimums, pay raises and other major gains.

Your Complete Guide to Pilots and Straight-to-Series orders

Strikers, who spent months on the picket lines to protect the future of writing as a profession, have been sharing their joy on social media, telling each other excitedly, “Let’s go back to work.”

For those working in television, however it is not clear what kind of business and marketplace they will be going back to. It likely won’t be what they left five months ago.

Accelerated contraction, more competition, reeled-in budgets, fewer overall deals and possibly more cancellations are some of the things industry sources are preparing for. One thing they are not anticipating: a flood of spec scripts.

It’s another testament to how high the stakes were for writers this time, and how much they rose to the occasion.

One representative recalled writers’ attitude in 2007-2008 as “while I’m waiting for the strike to be over, I need to be prepared,” resulting in a slew of spec scripts written during the work stoppage that hit the networks right after.

Not this time.

“Everyone had good intentions to take time and write but not a lot of people did,” another rep said. “People were busy, they took picket lines seriously and were there every day.”

It wasn’t just the daily physical presence at the pickets. “They were invested in the strike and their emotional focus was there,” the first person said.

RELATED: WGA Strike Photos: Writers, Showrunners & Supporters On Picket Lines

As a result, “there likely won’t be as many spec scripts as people anticipated at the start,” the second person added.

The observation was corroborated by writer David H. Steinberg. In an emotional message posted on X on Monday, he shares the anxiety created by the end of the strike and the routine of daily picketing — an experience he found “incredibly uplifting” because of the “wonderful solidarity” — as he readjusts to a daily routine of writing.

“I’ve talked to many writers and I think most of them did not write a ‘strike spec’,” he said in the post. “But we still feel like there’s going to be a ton of material flooding the market and a buying frenzy in the immediate aftermath of a strike.”

Indeed, there are a ton of projects ready to go out when networks and streamers reopen for business (though buyers do not expect the type of frenzy we have seen over the last decade). Many pitches had been held back from last winter and early spring amid a “terrible” market as buyers battened down the hatches in anticipation of a potential strike.

“No one is buying. This is the worst marketplace that I have ever experienced,” a veteran studio executive lamented to Deadline back in April.

The big question is, how receptive the marketplace will be post-strike.

“Across the board, what I have heard from buyers is they will be buying less and making less,” one seller said.

Back in April, there were already indications that the reasons for the dramatic industry slowdown were deeper and went far beyond strike preparation.

“A potential strike forces everyone to go on pause at the same time but they all needed to reframe and pivot as they have so much that is not working,” one insider told Deadline at the time.

Said a major buyer last week, “The strike just sped up the inevitable pullback; I suspect everybody will be doing less.”

In an appearance at the Code Conference today, Casey Bloys, Chairman and CEO of HBO and Max Content, said that the strike won’t change the type of shows they are planning to order but did call this an “existential” moment for the industry.

“There’s a lot changing and shifting. We’re coming out of a [Covid] bubble that we’re still dealing with the fallout from. It’s an uncertain time, it’s a scary time.”

Cancellations and Unrenewals

During the strike, there were a handful of renewals and a slew of cancellations as networks and streamers reevaluated their slates. That is continuing.

The first major programming news to come out after the WGA-AMPTP tentative agreement was reached was about four cancellations at Starz: of sophomore series Heels, Run the World and Blindspotting as well as the upcoming The Venery of Samantha Bird, whose production was paused in May due to the WGA strike with two episodes left to film.

There have been several cancellations of shows that had previously been greenlighted, like Showtime’s Gattaca and Seasoned, or renewed, like Prime Video’s The Peripheral and A League of their Own and Peacock’s Pitch Perfect: Bumper In Berlin — all headed into their second seasons.

We may not have seen the last of that either.

“There will definitely be more rescinded renewals,” one industry insider said last week.

That will likely extend to the broadcast networks as they examine their needs for the rest of the season in light of how deep into the fall the strike went.

“On the broadcast networks, if second or third seasons were ordered before the strike, it doesn’t mean will stay ordered after the strike.” (Deadline previously examined why shows early in their run are the most vulnerable for renewal reversals.)

Development Cuts & 2024 Pilot Season

Networks’ and streamers’ development slates also underwent close examination during the strike, and industry sources expect portions of them to be released, especially projects that were in early stages.

“There will be clearing the decks on a lot of stuff,” one source said. Buyers “have reevaluated how much they want to do and areas they want to go. That has changed.”

While the current broadcast season has been massively impacted by the strike, with just a couple of new and returning scripted series on the fall schedule, the 2024 pilot season can still be salvaged.

Normally, buying is almost complete by this time of year, but according to sources, networks are expected to be aggressive, buying new pitches along with some development rolled over from before the strike. Of course, even without the strike, broadcast pilot season over the past few years has diminished to a fraction of the volume we had a decade ago as networks’ parent companies have pulled back financially among declining linear ratings.

Series Budget & Deal Roster Trims

Show budgets by and large also are expected to be smaller even at places that have been generous, with an industry insider estimating that broadcast dramas would cost on average $4.5 million-$5 million per episode, and about half of that for comedy.

Even streamers, which have been shelling $20 million-plus an episode for series like Lord of the Rings: The Rings of Power, Stranger Things, House of the Dragon and some Marvel/Star Wars shows, would be looking to keep budgets at about $5M-$10M an episode, the insider said.

The “streaming gold rush” that led to an overall deal boom a couple of years ago is officially over. While there were no term deal terminations during the WGA strike, a number of pacts expired during the work stoppage and won’t be renewed, I hear. Studios have the option to “suspend and extend,” adding the length of the strike-related suspension at the end of overall or first-look deals’ term. For a number of writers and producers, that won’t happen, with only high-profile talent tied to big shows getting extensions, observers expect.

The overall deal market is expected to get even tighter with streamers and studios not only looking how strong writer-producers’ existing show(s) are but also what stafe of their lifecycle the series are in to decide whether to sign another overall deal or just a pact for writer-producer’s services if a show might be nearing the end of its run, I hear.

Overall deals will be “only for people they absolutely have to be in business with,” an industry insider said.

Pendulum Swing Or Bubble Burst?

A pullback after a lengthy strike is not a surprise — “Honestly, I don’t think studios will be buying anything for a little while,” Steinberg wrote in his Twitter message Monday morning.

But as writers have to compete for fewer staffing hobs available amid show cancellations, fewer script buys and fewer term deals, the question is how long the pullback will last.

While some think that the pendulum would swing and TV volume would bounce back, a number of top industry people believe the strike-influenced 2023 dip would not be an anomaly like the Covid-related drop in 2020.

Some of the losses are permanent: Over the past year, a broadcast network, the CW, went from 12 homegrown scripted series employing WGA writers to three — all of them producing shorter seasons.

Reporting a new all-time high of 599 scripted series in 2022, FX’s John Landgraf in January suggested that 2022 marked the peak of Peak TV, predicting a decline in 2023 months before the strike.

“We are not going back to 599 scripted shows, ever,” a top TV executive said recently.

Added a veteran rep, “The bubble seems to have burst.”

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