IATSE Strike Deadline Has Networks and Streamers Scrambling for Programming Options

COBRA KAI, from left: William Zabka, Ralph Macchio, ‘Nature vs. Nurture', (Season 3, ep. 302, aired Jan. 1, 2021). photo: ©Netflix / Courtesy Everett Collection
©Netflix/Courtesy Everett Colle

Networks and streaming services are bracing for headaches and disappointed viewers as Monday’s deadline for IATSE and the major studios to reach a deal and avoid a strike draws ever closer.

According to insiders across multiple networks who spoke with Variety, the feeling is that a deal will be reached that satisfies both sides before the deadline hits at 12:01 a.m. PT Monday or shortly thereafter. The real concern on everybody’s minds right now is the prospect of a strike dragging out for weeks or even months. A protracted walkout would cause chaos for broadcast networks in particular, who rely on weekly content during the traditional television season, while also affecting cable and streaming to varying degrees.

Should that happen, the plan would be to fill up programming schedules with reruns and acquired shows from other markets. While this sort of thing would have been implausible just a few short years ago, networks were forced into a similar situation last year when the COVID-19 pandemic effectively shut down all Hollywood productions for months.

Multiple broadcasters found themselves in the rare position of filling up their fall schedules — when new shows are traditionally launched — with acquisitions. It was one of the only times in American television history for this to happen. Given that, it is not impossible for the networks to do so again but it is still very undesirable, sources said, invoking the recent WGA battle with agencies.

“A strike is bad for business,” one network source said. “The real question is how long will it go? If it drags out, all bets are off. That’s when you will see way more pressure to make a deal with IATSE. Look at the WGA and what they did with the agencies. They showed it can be done.”

This approach may have less of an impact on companies like Netflix, however. While the streaming giant has plenty of shows in production that would be affected by a strike, they also have a deep content library as well as a strong international strategy to keep subscribers tuned in. One need only look at the success of the South Korean drama “Squid Game” in recent weeks to see that Netflix is not entirely dependent on shows made by IATSE members. Likewise, Disney Plus has a massive content library in place and impressive subscriber growth since its late 2019 launch that would comfortably see it last through at least the early days of a strike before it would put a pinch on original productions.

In the streaming world, though, not everyone is safe by any means. Relative newcomers on the scene like Peacock or Paramount Plus (formerly CBS All Access) are still in the process of building themselves into must-have options for modern audiences. If a strike begins and continues for too long, it could potentially do serious damage to them.

“These new streamers are in a bad spot, because they don’t have the kind of subscriber numbers that Netflix or Disney does,” an agency source said. “So if you’re hoping to see a big burst of sign ups because you’re working on some big, flashy show only to have production shutdown and the release delayed, your brand is going to suffer, no question.”

There are several high-profile streaming shows that recently went into production. Among those are “Cobra Kai” Season 5 at Netflix, “The Flight Attendant” Season 2 at HBO Max, and “Bel-Air,” the drama reboot of “The Fresh Prince of Bel-Air” at Peacock. All of those shows started shooting in September.

As of now, negotiations are continuing. Variety previously reported that IATSE and the AMPTP were back at the virtual bargaining table Thursday in hopes of averting a strike. However, IATSE is said to be stockpiling picket signs and masks for members and setting schedules for people on the picket lines. The union voted overwhelmingly in favor of the strike less than two weeks ago, with 98% of those who voted voting in favor.

(Pictured: “Cobra Kai”)