Writers may get a happy ending

Resuming talks with studios seen as gain

November 18, 2007|By David Zurawik | David Zurawik,SUN TELEVISION CRITIC

When the Writers Guild of America went on strike two weeks ago, experts were predicting an unhappy ending for the 10,500 members heading for picket lines. After all, two dominant trends in American life over the past 25 years have been the decline of unions and the consolidation of power in a handful of supersized media conglomerates.

But in a plot twist not even the TV and film writers anticipated, the guild is winning on at least two fronts - public opinion and production disruptions - against media giants such as Viacom and Disney.

Pointing to an agreement announced Friday night between the major studios and striking writers to resume contract talks Nov. 26, some economists see the possibility of significant gains - if not victory - for the writers.

"The announcement this weekend, and the fact that it came less than two weeks into the strike, is [a] clear indication of how decisively the writers were winning the early rounds of this battle," says Douglas Gomery, a media economist at the University of Maryland, College Park. "When the strike began on Nov. 5, the studios said they wouldn't resume talks as long as the writers were still on strike, but now they've suddenly changed course and are headed back to the table. This is the media giants being the first to blink."

According to the Writers Guild, picket lines at Hollywood studios will stay in place through Tuesday, culminating in a rally and march down Hollywood Boulevard by union members that day. Picketing will be suspended Wednesday through Sunday for the Thanksgiving holiday - and then will resume Nov. 26, when the talks start up again. Negotiations broke down primarily over the issue of how writers would be compensated for their work in new media.

The unprecedented dominance enjoyed by the few giant companies is the very thing that has made the guild's early success possible, according to some analysts.

"It's like the steel or American auto industry in the old days, when there were only a handful of companies that controlled everything," says Gomery, scholar in residence at the University of Maryland's Library of American Broadcasting. "Now, you have five or six media giants, depending on how you count, that run all the TV networks and film studios. And it's easier to set up and enforce five or six picket lines than it is 50 or 60. That's the story so far, but understand that the strike is far from over."

Public relations blitz

There is general agreement that it is too early to predict the outcome of what is already one of the worst Hollywood labor disputes in more than two decades. Just as media consolidation has resulted in a more focused target for the union, it can also make it easier for companies to maintain unity in long-term negotiations.

In recent days, the Alliance of Motion Picture and Television producers, the organization representing the media giants, has unleashed a public relations blitz with full-page ads in newspapers such as the Los Angeles Times and The New York Times to explain its position in the dispute, which focuses on the division of revenue from digital downloads and online streaming of feature films and TV shows.

Swarm of reruns

Still, the writers' early public relations coup was highlighted in a survey released last week by Pepperdine's Graziadio School of Business and Management. The survey found that 63 percent of the public sided with the writers; 4 percent backed the entertainment conglomerates; and 33 percent were unsure.

"I am surprised at the success the writers have had in garnering such a significant amount of public support since the strike started," says David M. Smith, a professor and labor economist at Pepperdine. "In part, I think it is the result of a general skepticism that people have for companies when power is this concentrated. But whatever the reason, that kind of public sentiment plus the economic disruption that the strike has already caused can serve as a powerful economic leverage - and bodes well for the writers in ongoing negotiations."

The guild's most visible success in disrupting studio operations has come in network TV, where late-night programs such as NBC's Tonight Show with Jay Leno and CBS's Late Show with David Letterman have been in reruns for two weeks.

Series casualties

Meanwhile, more than 20 prime-time series have shut down production since the strike started. On Friday, ABC's Grey's Anatomy, one of TV's most popular series with 20 million viewers a week, suspended production.

Other successful network series that have been stopped in their tracks and will run out of original episodes by the end of February include ABC's Desperate Housewives, and NBC's 30 Rock, and The Office.

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