Threat of writers' strike looms

As negotiations continue, TV studios cram to shoot episodes

October 16, 2007|By Scott Collins | Scott Collins,LOS ANGELES TIMES

HOLLYWOOD -- How will we get to sleep without David Letterman's "Top 10 List"? Or Stephen Colbert's "The Word"? What if we're left hanging with story interruptus on Heroes or Lost? Is there life after 'Til Death?

In short: Is a writers' strike really inevitable?

In case you've ignored the sounds of rising panic rippling over Hollywood lately: The networks and studios have been negotiating a new contract with the union representing TV and film writers, and ... it's not going well.

If it happens, a strike could wind up being even more damaging than the infamous 1988 writers' walkout, which academics and other observers have generally characterized as a lose-lose. Back then, thousands of people were thrown out of work for more than five months, and some estimates peg the entertainment industry's strike-related losses as high as $500 million.

The TV business has changed a lot since then, in ways that may make a strike even less palatable now.

In any case, the Writers Guild of America isn't finding much common ground with the Alliance of Motion Picture and Television Producers, with the sides far apart on issues like splitting revenues from new media and whether reality shows should be unionized.

At the conclusion of talks Thursday, the AMPTP fired off a statement ripping the guild for raising what it said were "a number of red herrings and irrelevant financial information." The guild has publicly dissed the producers' group as "not serious" (both sides are due back at the bargaining table today). If members give the OK, the guild could call a strike as early as Nov. 1.

That is why in the last couple of weeks, the TV business - networks, studios, writers, agents, managers and everyone else - has been thrown into a tizzy. What seemed hypothetical a month ago suddenly has become uncomfortably real.

Studios are cramming to shoot as many episodes of existing series as they can before any work stoppage. Crews on NBC's Heroes and ABC's Ugly Betty have been hustling like crazy, with multiple units racing to shoot two episodes simultaneously last week.

"The studio wants to get as much stuff shot as we can by Nov. 1, but we can only write the show as fast as we can write it," Carlton Cuse and Damon Lindelof, executive producers of Lost, wrote in an e-mail. Cuse sits on the guild's 17-member negotiating committee.

Some new shows with middling-to-poor ratings - including NBC's Journeyman and CBS' Cane - have received extra script orders.

Network officials aren't talking for the record about their strike plans. But almost everyone agrees that once the supply of new scripted episodes gets burned off - say, by mid-January - network primetime schedules will quickly devolve to the two "R's": reality and repeats. Reality shows generally don't use guild talent, so existing series like American Idol and Dancing With the Stars would be strike-proof.

There might suddenly be more primetime sports, too. And after disappearing almost entirely from network schedules, newsmagazines might come roaring back in style.

Perhaps most important, if the strike lasted for longer than a few weeks, the pilot season - when networks start the process of producing new dramas and comedies for the 2008-2009 season - would be thrown into disarray. The networks already are hedging bets by giving early pilot orders.

"To me, a strike means a loss," said screenwriter Craig Mazin, summing up the ambivalence of many. "On the other hand, some things are worth striking over, even if it means shooting yourself in the foot."

Scott Collins writes for the Los Angeles Times.

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