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David Fury

David Fury - Why Hollywood writers may go on strike and how that affects TV

Saturday 27 October 2007, by Webmaster

If you enjoy television and movies, the scariest day of the year could arrive at midnight on Halloween.

On Nov. 1, the contract the Writers Guild of America has with the TV networks and film studios runs out. And though the impact won’t be immediate for filmgoers, within a couple of months a strike would have a serious impact on the small screen. If a strike drags on for some time — and the last writers strike, in 1988, lasted five months — 2008 could be very painful for entertainment consumers.

Writers2 Many writers I talked to last week are gloomy about the chances of an 11th-hour settlement between the Writers Guild of America and the Alliance of Motion Picture and Television Producers (AMPTP), which have been in contentious on-and-off negotiations for months.

“I’d like to believe that it can be resolved, but with the changing marketplace, a strike may be the only way to get studios to budge,” said “24” writer/executive producer David Fury, who also notes that “a strike of a few months will be devastating to the industry.”

Patric Verrone, president of the Writers Guild of America, West, the organization that is in negotiations with AMPTP, has been through previous strikes and near-strikes, and he said he remains “optimistic” that a last-minute settlement is possible.

“Until now, quite frankly, [AMPTP representatives] have come in with their arms folded and told us why it’s a failing business and why movies make no money,” Verrone said. On Oct. 16, the AMPTP dropped its proposal to revamp the residual framework that has been in place for decades, a concept that writers furiously oppose. “Now actual bargaining can take place,” Verrone said.

But Oct. 22, after yet another fruitless day of meetings, the AMPTP released a statement criticizing the WGA’s demands, which would involve “unreasonable restrictions and unjustified costs,” according to AMPTP president J. Nicholas Counter. “We hope our efforts [to reach an agreement] are not futile as there is too much at stake.”

This showdown between writers and producers is the result of a long-brewing fight over payment for online distribution of TV shows, movies, Webisodes and other new-media content. The producers’ contracts with the Screen Actors Guild and the Directors Guild of America run out next summer, and the same issues are at stake with those unions. In Hollywood, the WGA-AMPTP battle is widely regarded as a defining moment in the entertainment industry’s digital coming-of-age.

There’s much more on the background of this conflict below, but first, here are the basics on how a strike would affect television:

* First to feel the pain will be fans of late-night TV. If the strike happens, writers for all late-night programs, including “The Daily Show,” “The Tonight Show,” “Late Night With Conan O’Brien,” “Late Show with David Letterman,” etc., would walk out. Some late-night shows would go into repeats, and others would continue to air nightly, but with more interviews and few (if any) sketches.

* Within a month or so, most daytime soaps would run out of fresh scripts. Though the networks won’t say what their plans are, an ad hoc mixture of news and sports programming would probably take the place of daytime serials.

* Things would remain relatively unchanged in prime-time television for a couple of months. Reality shows, most of which are not covered by WGA agreements, would stick around, and most scripted shows should have several episodes done or nearly finished before Nov. 1. So the networks would probably air the usual number of first-run episodes in November. December is typically a dead zone for the broadcast networks, so that month will have the usual amount of repeats and filler.

The biggest question mark is the so-called “mid-season,” which begins in January. If networks have any fresh episodes of scripted shows, they may save them for February sweeps. But it’s unclear how much new scripted programming we would see in prime time. If a strike extended into the new year, the pain would really set in after February and the broadcast networks are well out of new episodes of “Heroes,” “Ugly Betty” and every kind of “CSI.”

* Will “24” return in January, as Fox had previously announced? Fox, like the rest of broadcast networks, refused to say what its plans are. “We’re hoping that all parties can come to an agreement and a strike can be averted,” a spokesman said. “However, in the event one does occur, we’re prepared.”

David Fury, an executive producer of “24,” said that if the writers work past their contract date, as some think might happen if progress is made in negotiations, Jack Bauer may indeed return in January. “As of right now, I think Fox will premiere ‘24’ as scheduled,” Fury said, but he noted that “it really depends on if and when the writers are called to walk out. If the strike does hit on Nov. 1, it certainly makes sense for Fox to delay the start, even if the lack of new programming hurts their bottom line.”

* “Lost” is another high-profile network show that is scheduled to come back at midseason — ABC previously announced that the island drama’s 16-episode season would begin in February. But “I have no idea” when “Lost” will return if there’s a strike, writer/executive producer Damon Lindelof said. It “depends on how many episodes we’re able to bank and that depends on when a strike actually occurs.”

* “American Idol,” Fox’s perennial blockbuster, is expected to return in January, which means Fox, which has only two hours to fill on weeknights, is probably the least nervous of the major networks.

* The rest of prime time would be a mix of game shows, reality shows, sports programming, newsmagazines, reruns and even programs imported from abroad or from cable channels. In short, get ready to enjoy the magic of Regis Philbin hosting a new version of “Password” — in prime time.

“Every single studio and every single network has contingency plans for a strike. They have assured me that screens will not go black,” said Barbara Brogliatti, a spokeswoman for AMPTP.

* You can take that statement with a grain of salt. The TV studios “are very anxious. They don’t have enough,” said one writer/producer who did not want to be named. “They really want us to finish scripts as fast as we can.”

As long as networks and studios have completed scripts, movies and new TV episodes can still be filmed, which is why many TV and film writers are working around the clock until Nov. 1. Even so, production on most TV shows would grind to a halt by December or so. “We never prepared for” a strike, “Heroes” creator Tim Kring said in a conference call with reporters Oct. 16. “Once that train starts rolling, there’s not a whole lot you can do to speed it up or slow it down.”

If you’re thinking that the array of substitute programming that the networks have assembled sounds like a formula for driving viewers away from television, you’re not far wrong.

There’s a lot at stake for the networks, who are seeing, in many cases, double-digit dips in the live Nielsen ratings for their returning shows. Most new shows for the fall season are off to shaky starts as well, and the increasing use of DVRs continues to alter the television business in revolutionary ways. The thought that the 1988 strike drove away 9 percent of the TV audience forever can’t be a reassuring one for network executives.

For both sides, a lengthy strike would represent a huge loss of income. Still, the writers interviewed in the past week or so — all of whom said they are hoping for a settlement — sounded resigned to going on strike.

“There’s a big distinction between being prepared to strike and actually wanting to ... I place myself in the former camp,” Lindelof said.

“The elephant in the room is new media,” Fury said. “The residuals rates [for new-media distribution] have to be improved, if only for the writers coming up in the future. Anything short of that is unacceptable.”

Actually, the even bigger elephant in the room is DVD sales. Thanks to a deal that was struck in the mid-’80s most writers (and actors) made very little from the DVD boom of the past 20 years. They don’t want to make that mistake again with new-media distribution.

“It’s incredibly difficult to undo or revise those precedents, once they’re set. We learned that lesson in the hardest way possible after the home-video debacle of the ’80s,” said writer/director Craig Mazin, creator of artfulwriter.com, a site that has become, for many in the entertainment community, a go-to source of analysis and commentary about the possible strike.

“I’m a big believer in free-market capitalism. I don’t begrudge the companies their right to make money, and they’re really good at exploiting new markets,” Mazin said. “We just want a share of the revenue.”

Most of the major demands of the WGA involve the Internet and digital distribution. The guild wants jurisdiction over such works and it wants agreed-upon payment rates for new-media content; it wants an increase in the DVD compensation rate; and it wants a percentage of revenue derived from content sold over the Internet or delivered with advertising.

The Alliance of Motion Picture and Television Producers’ position is that anything streamed on the Internet — even complete episodes of TV — is promotional and thus shouldn’t be covered by union agreements.

“If there are no ads, then that is promotional,” said Verrone. The WGA’s proposals involve paying writers “based on a percentage of revenue. If the companies get paid, we do. If they don’t, we don’t.”

Still, not everyone is sure compensation formulas for new media should be set now, given how much flux the entertainment industry is in.

“I do believe that we should get a bigger percentage of DVD rentals and purchases and that we should get some income from those new platforms,” said writer Rick Cleveland (“Six Feet Under,” “Mad Men”). “But those platforms are changing and developing so quickly.”

Still, many writers are concerned that residuals from syndication and from other traditional outlets are going the way of the dodo. Therefore new-media compensation is all the more important to not just writers but also to actors and directors.

When it comes to digital compensation, “the first union to set this rate is going to set the rate for everyone,” said Mazin.

It would be good to get “an acknowledgement from the studios that new media has already begun to replace traditional broadcasting models,” said Damon Lindelof, executive producer of “Lost.” “Since [some of] these streams are ad-supported and the downloads have a fee (an episode of ‘Lost’ costs $2 on iTunes), there is obviously profit there — regardless of how minuscule. Any percentage of that profit … would make me feel like the negotiations had yielded a clear precedent for moving into the future.”

But in an Oct. 22 statement, AMPTP president J. Nicholas Counter said WGA negotiators “continue to pursue numerous financial proposals that would result in astronomical increases in our costs. Their proposals would also further restrict our ability to promote and market TV series and films, and prohibit us from experimenting with programming and business models in new media.”

With strong rhetoric coming from both sides, some fear that the two sides are so locked in to their respective positions that real progress on these complicated issues could be elusive.

“When you have two sides dug in so deeply, with aggressive face-saving on either side, you end up with a situation where some kind of war is inevitable,” Mazin said.

“If it has to happen, it has to happen,” he said. “But I can’t believe that a strike is unavoidable.”

If it isn’t, some writers plan to work on long-delayed personal writing projects during the strike; others will go on vacation or just enjoy the free time.

“No one would stop writing. I think people might stop turning in their work and definitely [would] stop getting paid, but I am sure anyone who had a pilot [for fall] would still be working on it,” said writer Jill Soloway (“Dirty Sexy Money,” “Six Feet Under”).

It sounds as though Lindelof won’t be doing much writing, though.

“[I’ll] catch up on all the shows sitting on my TiVo!” Lindelof said.” How’s that for irony?”