Who's Winning?


By Kim Masters

Here's the story: The writers seem to be keeping up their momentum, and talent from Jason Alexander to Ray Romano to Holly Hunter to Patricia Heaton is turning out to support them. The question is: How stiff is their resolve?

Show runners—those rich writer-producers—caught the studios off guard by refusing to cross lines. At first the studios assumed the writers would work without a contract. Then they assumed they'd performing nonwriting duties on their shows during a strike. Wrong on both counts.

Many show runners really, really want to do the work because these shows are their babies. But by refusing to work at all, they've shut down shows like Desperate Housewives and Grey's Anatomy faster than the studios expected. The studios may have stockpiled scripts, but if just anyone could put these shows together, they wouldn't be shelling out the big bucks to the show runners in the first place.

Now the show runners are getting threat letters from the studios and clearly, some are getting plenty nervous. Rather than vowing to fight until the bitter end, they're hoping they can return to work not when the two sides resolve their enormous differences, but simply if they resume bargaining. So far, nothing's scheduled, though there's a widespread belief that the two sides will called back to the table next week. "Everyone seems to feel that next week, it's do or die," says a very prominent producer.

If there's no resolution, can the writers hold out? A representative of many show runners says they're up for it now, in the initial wave of excitement. But how long will they keep picketing, he asks, when the weather gets cold (for Los Angeles), it rains, the holidays roll around, and there's no end in sight? He predicts they'll crumble like biscotti in a latte. (Would you want to be repped by this guy?)

The writers' stamina may be an open question, but the networks cannot be as sanguine as the bosses pretend. Even if the networks see this as an opportunity to dump failing shows and unproductive deals, they are taking an enormous risk. They are looking at a potentially permanent loss of audience, not to mention falling revenues when advertisers don't pay for commercials during repeats and bad reality programming, plus a pilot season made up of worse dreck than last time. If ever there was an example of mutually assured destruction, this strike would appear to be it.

As you've no doubt heard, film and television writers have joined the picket lines. At first, many weren't sure what to do once they got there. But eventually, they seemed to get the hang of it.

Among the celebrities who turned up to support them were: James L. Brooks, Tina Fey, Julia Louis-Dreyfus. In New York, John Oliver from The Daily Show was there explaining that writers must demand a share of Internet revenue now.

A source at NBC denied that The Office was shut down, as rumored, but what might have been shot isn't clear because Steve Carell, Rainn Wilson, and other talent didn't show up for work. CBS's Cane was said to be shut down, but the network probably isn't too upset about that.

As reported elsewhere, negotiations collapsed Sunday night after a long day of talks. It's hard to say whether both sides were in good faith or just trying to make it look that way. It seems that the writers made some concessions, but the studios wouldn't budge on the key issue: compensation for work that appears via the Internet or new technologies.

Nick Counter of the Alliance of Motion Picture and Television Producers was predicting a strike that lasts for months yesterday, saying the writers appear determined to stay off the job until the Screen Actors Guild negotiates this summer.

Can that be taken seriously? The studios can talk about shooting movies based on locked scripts, but that seems fanciful. Movies go through reshoots routinely; it's hard to believe studios want to start filming hundred-million-dollar pictures without the ability to fix scenes that aren't working.

The networks can talk all they want to about stockpiling material. They can't keep scripted series on the air for that long. Going to reruns and reality shows seems a good way to drive viewers away, perhaps forever.

On the other hand, the networks may be screwed, anyway. They're having a lousy fall—a lot of expensive shows from Viva Laughlin to Bionic Woman, and no breakout hit. Now may be as good a time as any for them to cut their losses with a particle of an excuse about how the shows would have built audiences if it hadn't been for the strike. It just doesn't seem like a long-term solution to their admittedly serious problems.

Of course, the studios might be able to hold out longer than the writers. J.J. Abrams is about to start directing Star Trek. He was on the picket lines yesterday and said he'll direct but not write. For a guy who seems to write in his sleep, that would seem to present a challenge. This is his second shot at directing a big feature film, and it's a potential kickoff to a franchise. Can he really resist the desire to give it his best shot?

Television show runners, those well-remunerated producer-writers, are also in a bind. They are being told by the guild to turn in copies of scripts by Thursday to ensure that those who violate the terms of the strike—i.e., those who write—can be punished. Meanwhile, the studios are warning them not to turn over the scripts to any third parties.

Contractually, they are obligated to do producing duties. The problem is that the line between producing and writing isn't clear. A couple of show runners have gone on the record saying that they'll do nothing at all, risking legal action from the studios. Shawn Ryan, creator of The Shield, sent around an e-mail that read, "I obviously will not write on my shows. But I also will not edit, I will not cast, I will not look at location photos, I will not get on the phone with the network and studio, I will not prep directors, I will not review mixes. ... I can't in good conscience fight these bastards with one hand, while operating an Avid with the other. I am on strike and I am not working for them. PERIOD."

Not many will go that far, but dozens of other show runners, including those from Grey's Anatomy, Ugly Betty, Heroes, Reaper, and The Office, signed an ad in Variety titled, "Pencils Down Means Pencils Down," expressing their intention to enforce the strike vigorously. Whether they stick to that resolve should have a lot to do with when the strike ends,
and how. (link)