Hollywood, writers script a cliffhanger

With billions at stake, a midnight deadline on TV contract talks

May 01, 2001|By David Zurawik | David Zurawik,SUN TELEVISION CRITIC

The one sure thing that can be said as the contract between the Writers Guild of America and the Alliance of Motion Picture and Television Producers nears its midnight expiration tonight is that almost no one seems to want a strike.

That does not mean there won't ultimately be one, but both sides seemed determined over the weekend and yesterday to at least try to keep the talks going past tonight's deadline if progress is being made.

What's at stake for the players in Hollywood are billions of dollars in future revenue and residuals primarily connected to the future sale of U.S. television series and future films abroad. As for viewers, what they are seeing is already being affected by just the possibility of a strike.

The prospect of continuing the talks past tonight's deadline was first raised publicly late last week by Los Angeles Mayor Richard Riordan, who has been actively trying to avert a strike in recent weeks. His office released a study showing that Los Angeles County would lose up to 82,000 jobs and $6.9 billion if writers and actors go on strike, with unemployment jumping from 4.8 percent to 6.9 percent.

That's assuming actors also go on strike. Contracts between major Hollywood studios and the Screen Actors Guild and the American Federation of Television & Radio Artists expire June 30. There is a history of solidarity between the writers and actors.

With a media blackout in place since April 17, official confirmation of plans to continue negotiations could not be obtained. But sources said yesterday that the continuation of talks past the deadline seemed highly likely. The WGA cannot go on strike without a strike authorization vote, and none had been scheduled as of yesterday.

The last time the WGA went on strike, in 1988, a vote was not taken until six days after the contract expired. That strike lasted six months and greatly disrupted the network television season.

The networks lost 9 percent of their audience, according to figures provided before the news blackout by Peter Roth, president of Warner Bros. Television. Warner Bros. produces such network series as "The West Wing," "ER" and "Friends."

While the impact of a strike has been discussed primarily in terms of dollars and cents and future losses, television programming and viewers' lives have already been affected by the possibility of a work stoppage.

One of the main reasons for the glut of new reality shows this spring is not just the tremendous success of CBS' "Survivor" last summer, but also the fact that they don't require scripts from Guild members. The networks pointedly refer to reality series such as "Survivor" as "nonscripted fare."

And, while you might love "Survivor," do you feel your viewing life enriched by UPN's "Chains of Love," ABC's "The Mole" or Fox's "Temptation Island"? The networks have made no secret of the fact that they ordered far more of these shows than they might have to help insulate themselves against not having fresh programs in the fall should a strike occur.

"We've had strike planning meetings on a bimonthly basis for about 10 months now getting ready for this," Scott Sassa, president of NBC West Coast, told television critics in January. "We have a number of reality shows that are in stages ready to go that we'll try out in the spring."

Viewers have seen one of those NBC shows, "Weakest Link." That's as good - or bad, depending on your point of view - as the roster gets.

The other effect of a possible strike being felt in America's living rooms involves the rushed production of such hit series as "Law & Order" in an effort to stockpile episodes for next fall.

"Everybody is exhausted. Production is being pushed. Mistakes are going to be made," Roth said in January.

Most network series had finished making all episodes for this season in March. What we are now seeing on the screen is the product of that hurry-up offense earlier in the year - the less carefully crafted episodes.

Rhetoric on both sides has made it difficult for many viewers to understand the complicated issues underlying the contract talks. The key ones are all tied to residuals - the payments made to writers each time a film or television show they wrote airs. Of particular concern to writers are foreign television residuals.

"This is not about trying to get new things, but rather to make adjustments in old formulas that have become outdated by changes in the industry," Michael Mahern, secretary-treasurer of the Writers Guild, West, said before the news blackout.

For example, a writer of an episode of "ER" now gets a one-time payment of $7,000 for foreign rights, which cover all airings of the episode outside the United States. That kind of one-shot payment was negotiated in 1970, when the foreign market largely consisted of a few government monopolies: BBC in Britain, NHK in Japan and the RAI network in Italy. Given that setup, there was not much money to be made abroad.

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