Kelly Ripa did it. Whoopi did it. But after Barrymore crossed the picket line, the daytime TV host faced a unique wave of scrutiny. Why?
Photo: CBS

As basically every media-interested person and her mother now knows, the talk show The Drew Barrymore Show is now back in production even though both WGA and SAG-AFTRA are still on strike. This has caused, to put it mildly, no end of kerfuffle. Barrymore released a statement indicating that she was complying with strike promotional rules, which went over like a lead brick. There’ve been viral tweets about audience members getting kicked out for wearing a WGA pin. Barrymore was announced, and then disinvited, as the host of the National Book Foundation awards. For as long as this strike has gone on, there’s been fairly little noisy pushback about specific individuals who cross the picket line, and Barrymore feels like one of the few major celebrities to get the full Game of Thrones shame bell treatment. Why? Two Vulture writers, television reporter Josef Adalian and critic Kathryn VanArendonk, dug into the circumstances around this moment in the strike.

Kathryn VanArendonk: One of the questions I’ve seen over the past several days is why Barrymore would choose to do this. Sometimes that question sounds pretty rhetorical (why would anyone do such a thoughtless … etc.). But sometimes the question has sounded much more sincere, and my sense is that it’s actually exactly the right question to ask. I’d love a better understanding of what exactly might be happening to have caused this decision! So my first question for you, Joe, is … wait, is Drew scabbing? How much do we know about her contract and the contracts of the people who make her show?

Josef Adalian: The shame-bell treatment is a perfect metaphor, and we can get back to the whole equal treatment question later. But yes, let’s start with the why. First, what’s important to note is that while SAG is on strike, and Barrymore is a SAG member, The Drew Barrymore Show operates under a different labor agreement than the recently expired deal that prompted July’s walkout. For SAG members, most talk shows, game shows, and variety shows on TV — everything from Dancing With the Stars to The View to Barrymore’s daytime gabfest — operate under the so-called Netcode agreement. So by showing up as host, Barrymore is living up to contractual obligations and is not breaking any SAG rules. Just the opposite: She risks legal action by Paramount Global, whose CBS Media Ventures unit produces The Drew Barrymore Show, if she doesn’t come to work. Would the company sue her? Probably not. But it’s worth noting SAG issued a statement this week saying its member was fully in compliance with the union’s rules: “Drew’s role as host does not violate the current strike rules,” the guild confirmed.

The dilemma for Drew and other daytime hosts is that while SAG isn’t striking their shows, the WGA very much is. The same Minimum Basic Agreement pact that covers production of Abbott Elementary or Stranger Things and their packed writers’ rooms also applies to the three scribes who normally would help Barrymore segue between riffs on the news, say nice things about a celebrity before they walk on stage, or help her come up with seemingly spontaneous bon mots that aren’t spontaneous at all. That’s why there have been pickets in front of The View all summer long and why WGA East members protested the start of taping for Barrymore’s show this week: These writers are just as unemployed right now as their Hollywood counterparts. And they believe these shows should go dark until there’s a deal, much as production has stopped on big, fancy scripted series and most late-night talk shows. (Andy Cohen is still plugging away on Watch What Happens Live because Bravo apparently can only afford to pay Andy Cohen a decent salary.)

KVA: Right, so some of the question here is how production is happening without writers, and what exactly any of those flavors of production would mean. Is Drew just making it up as she goes, and does that count as an unscripted show? Or are there non-union writers stepping in to do that work, in which case they’re the ones scabbing? Regardless, it’s true that any kind of production that was previously using WGA labor, is now continuing without them, and is being picketed, is now crossing a picket line.

You mention that it’s unlikely CBS would sue Barrymore if she refused to return. But is that the only form of pressure that could be acting on her? It seems unlikely that she came back to production without at least some thought about how it would look and what it would mean without her WGA staff. Is it the kind of show that risks cancellation if it doesn’t return? Are there other big reasons why she might have felt like she had to come back now?

JA: We’ll know for sure what a writerless Barrymore show will look like when new episodes return on Monday. But based on this summer’s run of The View, it will probably be a bit less polished than normal and even more improv-like than a normal episode of The Drew Barrymore Show. Unlike the fake news of The Daily Show or Last Week Tonight, the “Drew’s News” segments are pretty much the same as the Hot Topics on The View: Drew or Ross Mathews reads a quick set-up referring to some recent development, and then they riff for a few minutes. I don’t say this to minimize the contributions of those writers at all, by the way. On The View, there isn’t a script now but the hosts do have notes, or at least note cards, which have prompts to remind them what the next segment is about or what roles an actor or author may have had. But much of the show feels like it always does, with the biggest difference being far fewer celeb guests since SAG members are not promoting filmed projects. (They are, however, hyping books, which is why Matthew McConaughey was on this week. He and Whoopi were careful not to mention the fact they appeared together in 1995’s Boys on the Side, which also starred … Drew Barrymore.)

This is a good place to mention that we have a historical record of what talk shows look like without writers. During the 2007-’08 WGA walkout, Ellen DeGeneres — a WGA and SAG-AFTRA member — went back to work in November 2007, one day into the strike, and the response was … not good. But DeGeneres didn’t just interview guests or talk about the news; she delivered a full-on monologue that she claimed was riffed and not written. DeGeneres’s peers in late night at the time all stayed off the air early in the strike, but they, too, returned to work in January of 2008. While David Letterman was able to strike an interim agreement with the WGA — because he owned his show — talkers at NBC and Comedy Central went back without a deal. We can discuss the response to those decisions later, but those strike episodes contained a mix of time-killing stunts and segments like this Jon Stewart bit on The Daily Show that certainly played a lot like a typical fake news story. Critics at the time even mentioned how eventually these strike shows started to feel a lot like their fully staffed versions.

The question of whether these supposedly unscripted segments on struck talk shows represent writing as some members of the WGA believe is pretty clear-cut. “No show is returning ‘without writers,’” WGA strike captain Andra Whipple wrote this week. “Someone decides & plans what people will talk about on screen. That’s writing. To call it something else is a lie intended to devalue our labor. It’s disrespectful to the writers of these shows. It’s against our strike rules. It’s scabbing.” Unsurprisingly, the studios who make these shows and the talent who’ve returned to work disagree.

KVA: Yeah, the question of what counts as “writing” is central while also being challenging to nail down. Someone is writing down whatever is on those cue cards The View hosts are reading. Isn’t that doing struck labor? It extends beyond the talk-show hosting area: Showrunners who were still in production before the SAG strike kicked in were trying and struggling to delineate what parts of their jobs were writing (and therefore on strike) and what parts were producing (and so they were contractually required to keep doing them). For work that so often happens on the level of having an idea, it’s tricky for something as necessarily concrete as a labor contract to point to where the work begins and ends.

This is one of the things that feels like it’s changed quite a bit from 2007-2008. There’s been a push for a broader understanding of what exactly writers do, both from the WGA officially and from the many writers who’ve been so visible on social media this year. That more expansive vision of writing is crucial from the perspective of the WGA. As it’s gotten harder and harder to make a living as a Hollywood writer, it’s become even more necessary to make a strong argument that writing is fundamental and inextricable from everything else that shows up on screen. The idea that jotting down a few ideas for “Drew’s News” still counts as union writing is worth fighting for, even when it’s also clearly somewhere relatively mild on the spectrum of intensive writing work.

At the same time, it feels like the specific power dynamics of this decision are more complicated than just “come back now” or “come back later when the strike is done.”

JA: They are. Fully scripted Hollywood is completely shut down because it would take literally dozens of scab workers to fill in for actors and writers. And it’s very clear that the writing and acting on, say, Yellowstone is covered by struck units of the WGA and SAG. But with talk shows, because the performance part falls under Netcode, studios and networks absolutely have a right to continue trying to produce them without invoking a visit from the National Labor Relations Board. It’s why, as you noted, some scripted shows and movies remained in production before SAG was on strike. The WGA smartly and aggressively targeted those productions with pickets because sister unions like the Teamsters refused to cross picket lines in solidarity with the writers. That resulted in many shows and movies being forced to shut down — even when actors showed up. As far as I know, SAG members who reported to set weren’t targeted or shamed in every case even though it was very clear the productions were being struck.

And that’s sort of what’s going on here. Just as networks and studios had a right to continue filming productions as long as no changes were made to scripts — something many in the WGA felt was impossible, it should be noted — they now believe they should be able to continue filming talk shows without the input of writers. The WGA disagrees, and it’s picketing. But Barrymore’s deal, like the deals of the hosts of The View or any other talk show still filming, is with her studio partners. As noted earlier, they could claim breach of contract were Barrymore not to show up.

I don’t think that’s likely. But what is likely is that the show would either shut down without Barrymore or film a version without her that would be much lower-rated. Her show is not a CBS network program but rather one sold by CBS to local TV station groups across the country. It is by no means a given that they would take kindly to additional weeks of reruns (especially coming off a long summer hiatus) or substitute hosts. It’s unlikely they’d dump the show altogether, but they could move it to worse timeslots or pressure CBS to adjust their contracts. All of which is a long way of saying, there’s material risk to the future of The Drew Barrymore Show or The Jennifer Hudson Show or any newer syndicated show were the host to stay away.

There’s also the undeniable fact that shutting down the show would put a couple hundred people out of work. Now that sort of pain is part of the calculus of a strike, and WGA members are right to note there’s a bigger long-term reason for workers to suffer that pain now. Writers and actors have also been making the argument that the stakes of the 2023 strikes are much higher than before, with streaming and AI representing an existential threat to their respective industries. But it’s not unprecedented for Barrymore or other talk-show hosts to include factors such as the future of individual shows or crew hardships in their decision-making process when deciding whether to go to work on struck productions. The very labor-friendly Conan O’Brien cited his non-WGA staff as a reason he decided to return to work in 2008. “I am left with a difficult decision. Either go back to work and keep my staff employed or stay dark and allow 80 people, many of whom have worked for me for fourteen years, to lose their jobs,” O’Brien announced 15 years ago. “If my show were entirely scripted I would have no choice. But the truth is that shows like mine are hybrids with both written and non-written content. An unwritten version of Late Night, though not desirable, is possible — and no one has to be fired.”

I’d also note here that Stewart’s show was not at all in danger in 2008, nor was O’Brien’s or Jay Leno’s (or DeGeneres’s). Their studios and networks would have not even thought of canceling those shows had they stayed dark, and all of their shows were successful enough that most of their viewers would have returned. I don’t think that’s a given with Barrymore, who despite having amazing growth in season two is still not a Nielsen juggernaut (very little in syndication is today). That’s doubly true with Hudson’s show, going into year two. It is likely the case that The View would be just fine had it gone dark for six months or used non-Oscar-winning actors as moderators. Which leads me to this question for you, Kathryn: Whether or not Drew deserves the blowback she’s gotten, why have the women of The View and the hosts of Live With Kelly and Mark gotten off relatively unscathed these past few months?

KVA: It’s a combination of a few things, I think. There was an early strike press cycle about Drew deciding not to host the MTV Awards in support of the strike, which set her up as a pro-union figure, which in turn set her up for outrage when she made a decision that felt contrary to that position. She’s also a unique, perfect storm for a blowback narrative. Her public identity is something between “beautiful, delicate empath” and “motherrrrrrrr!!!” She’s unusual among daytime hosts in being a crossover success among the kinds of people who rarely otherwise care about daytime talk. Our colleague Alex Jung profiled her this year; we put her on the cover! Alex’s profile was far more nuanced, of course, and spoke to a quality of Drew Barrymore that is more driven by feelings than by careful assessment of the media landscape. But the broader narrative of her over the past few years has not been all that complex. Much like pride, the hagiography comes before the fall.

Meanwhile, Kelly and Mark, whatever else they are, do not have a reputation of regularly going viral on TikTok, or of standing up to The Man. And The View feels like a ubiquitous public utility full of occasional shouting — I think most viewers don’t even register that it’s written at all, or that there’d be any reason for it to not be on the air. Whoopi also addressed both the WGA strike in May and exactly this Netcode element in July, once SAG went on strike. The explanation didn’t tackle any of the complexities of appearing without writers, but just the words “Netcode contract” gave that explanation a level of official-sounding approval that Drew’s vibes-based Instagram statement lacked. It’s also worth noting that media coverage, which we are certainly a part of, has emphasized a Drew Barrymore strike angle in the last week, and there’s been much less emphasis on the other daytime shows doing the exact same thing. It’s a circular effect. A piece about Drew Barrymore creates interest, which inspires more pieces about Drew Barrymore as a strikebreaker, which solidifies the narrative of her as an especially egregious offender, which further fuels the rancor. It’s understandable, but it’s also an incomplete picture of what the daytime talk landscape is like right now.

That total failure of communications on the studio/Barrymore side is what I find most surprising and most telling. It’s neatly in step with a long summer of terrible attempts to sway the public narrative from the AMPTP, which time and again has underestimated social media, public support for the strike, and solidarity among the WGA and SAG-AFTRA. You’d think that by this point, someone involved with The Drew Barrymore Show would’ve realized the potential for fury and come up with a better plan to explain their side of things. It’d still be crossing a picket line, to be clear! But they could’ve at least done a big public donation to the Entertainment Community Fund, or emphasized all the crew members whose jobs are at risk, or done a crisis management PR pass on Drew’s Instagram post. Instead, it’s been bad news after bad news for days now. That sort of thing is survivable for lots of celebrities, and a tough pill to swallow for a talk-show host whose entire public identity rests on her likability.

JA: Sometimes celebrities are well served by being genuine and speaking for themselves; this was not one of those times. Drew’s statement was a perfect example of why celebrities need good personal PR people … and writers. And Drew probably does have a good team behind her, but if they made a mistake it was by letting her speak for herself, and to not speak before her show returned. Back in 2008, the return of the late-night hosts was preceded by an elaborate, somewhat choreographed dance between the hosts, the WGA, and the public. They stayed out for a while in solidarity. Then there were hints they might try to get interim deals to return. Letterman got one because his Worldwide Pants was truly independent; the others never had a shot, but they tried. And when they finally did cross the picket lines and go back to work, they publicly wrang their hands about the difficult decision and used their platforms to bash their employers. By the definitions being used today, Conan and Jay and Stewart and, yes, Stephen Colbert were all scabs, or at the very least, worked on struck productions and provided aid and comfort (and ratings) to the enemies. But they still, as you noted Drew did not, stuck it to The Man. So everyone accepted it and moved on. Drew just “owned” it, when she could have “reluctantly decided to share the solidarity I have with my striking writers with the dozens of crew members on my still young show.”

But also, I can understand why Team Drew might not have anticipated this level of blowback. I agree with everything you said about why those other shows didn’t get pummeled, but there is no difference practically or morally between Barrymore showing up to talk about the latest crazy health trend or Kelly Ripa bemoaning how humid New York has been or Goldberg asking Joy Behar about the latest Trump indictment. And to be clear, the WGA doesn’t think there’s a difference, either: It has picketed The View, and I’m guessing has shown up outside the studio where Ripa and her husband tape. Similarly, the WGA East’s first public statement about Barrymore’s show was very tame, saying only that the program “is a WGA covered, struck show that is planning to return without its writers” and that it “has, and will continue to, picket struck shows that are in production during the strike. Any writing on The Drew Barrymore Show is in violation of WGA strike rules.” Contrast that with the WGA East’s response to DeGeneres performing a monologue and planning a trip to New York: “We find it sad that Ellen spent an entire week crying and fighting for a dog that she gave away, yet she couldn’t even stand by writers for more than one day,” the Guild said, adding, “On her first show back, Ellen said she loves and supports her writers, but her actions prove otherwise.”

None of this is to say that the response to Barrymore has been overheated or that other hosts should now be subject to the same level of online backlash. But I do think the disparity in responses has made it tough for hosts in the middle to figure out how to navigate this moment. I also think this entire debate somewhat shifts attention away from the real issue here: The AMPTP signatories continue to stall and stall in the hopes that the delay will weaken writers and actors just enough that they can save a little bit of money by forcing them to accept a less favorable final deal. Drew Barrymore and her fellow daytime hosts may not be labor heroes, and I totally get people being disappointed by their actions or wanting them to do more. But if you’re looking for villains, I’d start in the C-suites of the major media conglomerates.

KVA: That feels completely right to me. As much as it’s fun to be distracted by the Kooky Beloved Talk-Show Host Turns Out to be Disappointing narrative, we can’t forget that the real power and avarice lie elsewhere. If we do keep emphasizing the talk-show host narrative, let’s make sure to remember that Drew is far from the only person worth pressing on these issues. What’s that I see? Bill Maher has entered the chat? Step aside Drew. A new villain rises.

The Backlash Came for Drew Barrymore