‘ER’ Writers Reunion on WGA Picket Line Puts Sharp Focus on What TV Has Lost Amid the Streaming Boom

In its heyday, “ER” would keep about 75 background actors on hand per episode to be called up as needed to fill out scenes in hospital corridors and whatnot. On Tuesday, about 75 “ER” alumni filled the sidewalks outside the show’s old studio on Olive Avenue in Burbank. Writers, actors and crew members who worked on the beloved NBC drama series rallied behind the Writers Guild of America on Day 29 of the strike called against Hollywood’s major employers.

Many of those who gathered for the “ER” reunion-themed picket on the day after the Memorial Day holiday weekend were emotional about what “ER” represented in their professional careers. It’s an apt symbol for the WGA strike because “ER” is the kind of long-running scripted series that television networks don’t seem to make anymore.

“There was a communal aspect to watching television that I think, largely, is lost, partially because the shows don’t run as long and become ingrained in our lives like they used to,” said David Zabel, who was a writer-producer on the show from 2001 to 2009, rising to showrunner for its final seasons. “And also because people don’t watch [episodes] at the same time. That’s never going to go back. But it used to be — Thursday night at 10, everybody watched ‘ER.’ And then Friday morning, everybody talked about ‘ER.’ So the benefit was that it was a very communal experience.”

“ER” became a family in part because it offered steady regular employment to hundreds of cast, writers, producers and crew members from 1994 to 2009. The list includes Meredith Stiehm, president of the WGA West, who spent about two years on the show in the early 2000s. She was on hand Tuesday outside the studio where she went on after “ER” to serve as creator, executive producer and showrunner of the CBS crime procedural “Cold Case.”

“There’s community to it,” Stiehm said of the WGA’s broad-based picket strategy. “Post-COVID it’s like coming together and having an activity and a purpose and something we’re all fighting for. I think it’s good for the emotional health of everyone. But we’re also all comparing notes and we’re in a lot of trouble. This is an emergency, this situation. Everyone feels that this is the right action and we need to fight.”

With a 15-year run on a predictable September-May season cycle, a primetime staple “ER” also became part of the fabric of viewers’ lives in a way that few shows can anymore. Participants in the “ER” picket pointed to the once-blockbuster drama as a high-caliber example of all that has been lost by the fundamental shifts in content production and distribution in the streaming era. Industry veterans say they’re not trying to turn back the clock, but they are looking hard at how to preserve the best aspects of the old system that allowed many at all levels of the creative community to make a steady living with predictability in schedules and shooting locations.

“I like series work. To me, it is the most blue-collar, hard-hat, lunch-pail kind of union work you can do. You go to work in the morning at six o’clock, and you come home at eight or nine o’clock,” said “ER” star Noah Wyle, who played the rookie Dr. John Carter on the series throughout its run. “The people I’m out here walking with are the friendships that I’ve maintained now over the last 30 years since we began that show. You don’t get that when you’re working on short order seasons or on movies.”

He feels fortunate to have learned the ropes of network TV on such a long-running success story. And “ER” has also proven to have legs in the streaming era as a binge favorite for Hulu and more recently Max, the sibling platform of Warner Bros. Television.

“I love the building of an ensemble. It’s not just the cast. It’s the crew and it’s the background actors, it’s everybody assembled to buy into something that’s bigger than all of us individually. If you’re lucky enough to have resonate like we did for a long time with ‘ER’ — really, it’s the most gratifying you can find this work to be,” Wyle said.

Walon Green has been in Hollywood long enough to have collected an Oscar nomination as the screenwriter of 1969’s “The Wild Bunch.” And he’s been working in TV long enough (including a late 1990s stint on “ER”) to have seen the mini room controversy up close about 18 months ago on the Apple TV+ series “Hello Tomorrow!” He knew at first glance that the 10-week process was hard on the young writers involved.

“I thought it was very limiting,” Green said. The small room wrote 10 episodes and the show got the greenlight and premiered earlier this year. But Green couldn’t help but think of what would have happened had the mini room’s work been shelved. “If they hadn’t made that show, these people would have worked for 10 weeks on the show, and virtually would have been treading water,” Green said. “There would have been nothing [produced] to move from to something else. Those people would have gotten almost nothing out of it financially and creatively to move on. And I thought, this is kind of a bad system.”

For two decades across 331 episodes, a steady stream of writers and producers flowed through “ER” and its WBTV-based home of John Wells Productions. The studio and Wells Prods. proved to be a finishing school for showrunners and top producers such as Zabel, Stiehm, Neal Baer, Janine Sherman Barrois, Dee Johnson, Mimi Leder, Lydia Woodward, Carol Flint, Christopher Chulack, Jack Orman and others.

Now one of the big concerns shared by alumni is the lack of learning opportunities for less-experienced writers on such a high-end and high-pressure series production. As in the scenario Green describes, there’s no time for these writers to learn at the shoulder of showrunners. Zabel points to the irony of “ER” having the reputation for nurturing aspiring writers and producers on its staff. A number of picket attendees said they worked their way up the ranks from entry level jobs during the show’s long run.

“The lack of training is a real problem,” Zabel said. “The thing that I find saddest is not being able to offer the training to young writers the way that I have in the past because of the deals that these companies want to make with writing staffs. And that’s exactly what the strike is about.”

Anecdotal reports abound that the dearth of experienced writers involved throughout the final stages of post-production is leading to costly problems that could be avoided. The squeezing of writing staffs and writing time on the front end of production will have repercussions downstream in the labor force, Zabel, Green and others observe.

“I was really trained and taught on ‘ER.’ So I like being able to do the same thing for young writers and this system as it’s coalescing, it’s not allowing for that. And that’s bad for everybody,” Zabel said. “It doesn’t allow young writers to make a living and it doesn’t allow them to get the training they need to be good showrunners and creators later. And they’re already feeling that. They don’t acknowledge it, I think, but I think you’ll see a lot of shows that run into trouble because there aren’t [enough] people who have come up in a system that prepared them to run a show.”

When pressed on what it will take to get the WGA and the Alliance of Motion Picture and Television Producers back to the negotiating table, Stiehm said it’s on the AMPTP to re-engage. “We’d be back tomorrow if they want us to,” Stiehm said. “But they’d have to come back and actually talk about the issues. There were so many issues they just didn’t even address.”

Wyle is one of many SAG-AFTRA members who have joined WGA picket lines since the strike began May 2 to register his alarm at business conditions for working Hollywood. Nothing worries him more than the fast march of technological innovation around Artificial Intelligence.

“This will be the last labor negotiation where we’ll be able to talk about it with any leverage whatsoever,” Wyle said as he whisked himself along the crosswalk that runs across Olive Avenue opposite Warner Bros.’ Gate 2 parking faciliity. A giant-size poster of an “ER” cast shot hangs over his head on the side of the studio’s high walls, real estate the studio reserves for its biggest franchises.

“The more we learn about AI, and what it is possible to do with an image or a voice, the more I personally want protective language in my contracts to make sure that my work is not going to be manipulated in perpetuity for reasons other than the creative ones that we set out for,” Wyle vowed.

VIP+ Guest Column: How to End the Writers Strike

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *