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After Talks Collapse, Writers Guild Strike Continues

December 10, 2007 at 6:25 PM EDT
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Negotiators continue to seek a compromise to end the Writers Guild of America's ongoing strike. Jeffrey Brown discusses the strike with Carl Diorio, labor editor for The Hollywood Reporter.

JIM LEHRER: Now, the plot thickens, and the Hollywood writers’ strike goes on. Jeffrey Brown has our story.

JEFFREY BROWN: After negotiations between screenwriters and producers broke down on Friday, workers whose jobs depend on TV and film production — set builders, hairstylists, and so many others — took to the streets of Los Angeles this weekend to call for a settlement in the worst labor crisis to hit the industry in 20 years.

At another gathering, so-called “fans of writers” came from around the country and the world to show their support for the striking members of the Writers Guild.

The showdown centers on a dispute over how writers should be compensated for online programming. Negotiators on the two sides read the script of this internal drama very differently.

JIM KENNEDY, Alliance of Motion Picture and Television Producers: If the Writers Guild organizers drop these unreasonable demands, then we can get back to the table and, I think, quickly negotiate a fair solution.

MICHAEL WINSHIP, President, Writers Guild of America-East: We’re ready to negotiate and bargain. The other side’s position seems to have been to offer ultimata.

JEFFREY BROWN: The five-week-old strike is beginning to have a wider economic impact, and many industry workers are worried. Kaydee Lavorin is a set decorator.

KAYDEE LAVORIN, Set Decorator: It’s terrifying for everyone. I mean, I’m actually cutting way back, since I don’t know what I’ll be doing in February.

JEFFREY BROWN: In the meantime, some writers are taking their comedic bite to the Internet.

YOUTUBE VIDEO HOST: Our top story — really, our only story — the ongoing writers’ strike, which began last Monday after talks broke down between writers, seen here working slavishly for your entertainment, and media company CEOs, captured here in their natural habitat.

JEFFREY BROWN: In fact, in a sea of late-night talk show reruns, political candidates might be the only ones enjoying a respite from serving as the butt of late-night jokes.

TV ACTOR: If he was the last person she called, then he’s the first person…

JEFFREY BROWN: Everyone else, including fans of drama and comedy favorites that are running out of new programs, might not be so pleased.

Negotiations breakdown

JEFFREY BROWN: And we check in for more on all this with Carl DiOrio, who's been covering the strike and its impact for the Hollywood Reporter.

Well, Carl, last week it seemed like there was some hope, but now it looks like this thing could go on for quite a while. What happened?

CARL DIORIO, The Hollywood Reporter: Yes, that short-lived hope has dissipated completely. Last week, it seemed like the parties were discussing proposals on the chief issue of how to compensate writers when their work is used over the Internet. This all along has been considered to be the chief issue.

What happens Friday? All of a sudden, there's this notion that side discussions of issues such as the Writers Guild's right to jurisdiction in the area of reality television was becoming such an impediment in the talks that, if the writers didn't take it off the table, the studios just didn't want to bother anymore with these negotiations for now.

JEFFREY BROWN: You mean whether the workers in reality TV would be covered by the writers' contract?

CARL DIORIO: For some time now, the Writers Guild has been trying to organize so-called hyphenates, writer-producers on so-called unscripted television shows, what we've come to know as reality television. They haven't had a lot of success.

But they were asking the studio organization for a guarantee, jurisdictional rights to organize writer-producers on reality shows. This was always believed to be a nonstarter by most third-party observers, but it was assumed that it was something of a peripheral demand, and really the focus was on the demands for greater Internet compensation.

Impact felt beyond writers

JEFFREY BROWN: Now, it looks like the first victims are some of the people we just showed in our set-up, the people caught in the crossfire. How many people are we talking about? And in what ways are they being hit, all the people who work in the industry?

CARL DIORIO: Well, Jeff, the Writers Guild has drawn some criticism from another Hollywood union, IATSE, which is largely a group of blue-collar workers in Hollywood, although they also have some crafts locals, editors and others who belong to it.

The head of IATSE, Tom Short, blasted the Writers Guild negotiator, said, "All that's missing is clown suits. These guys don't know how to negotiate a contract," and went on to say that he believes well north of 30,000 people have been thrown out of jobs or will be soon.

That's because TV production effectively is going to shut down in the next few days. After January 1st, what we will see filling the airwaves of the broadcast networks are what? Reality shows, these unscripted-type programs of the "American Idol" sort.

And so FOX is already planning on bringing back "American Idol" in January. And they, you know, effectively give a shrug of the shoulders to the loss of dramatic shows and sitcoms, but some other networks could be harder hit. Who's hard hit for sure? The workers, the stage crews, the production workers behind the scenes who are not workers of the Writers Guild, but who will be displaced from their jobs as a result of this negotiating impasse.

JEFFREY BROWN: But the scripted dramas and comedies that people watch by the millions, you're saying they're running out of -- they're running out of new programs and, by January, no more?

CARL DIORIO: Yes, that's right, Jeff. What happened was they got as many scripts shaped up by the time the Writers Guild strike began on November 5th. But after that, it was verboten that anybody would even do a rewrite on a scene for a TV show.

So whatever scripts they had, the actors, who were still under contract, went before the cameras to film. But those episodes are now being shown on the air in the next few weeks. And roughly speaking, by January 1st, pretty much all that material will have run its course, and the broadcast networks at least will have to fill their programming grids with other sorts of shows.

Effect on feature films

JEFFREY BROWN: I want to ask you about the movies, because we just got into the holiday movie season. At what point do films get hit by a strike like this?

CARL DIORIO: Well, thus far, the strike has been more an inconvenience than anything that's been a severe blow to the executives on the movie-making side of studios.

But just to show you an example of how severe those inconveniences can be, there's a Universal movie in the works called "State of Play" that was supposed to star Brad Pitt. Brad Pitt was not happy with the script that had been written and rewritten for the movie, and he declined to go forward with his commitment unless there was another rewrite of a fashion.

And the studio was unable to persuade him from that point of view, so he dropped out, and the studio, which was within days of wanting to shoot this -- there's already a big set built for it on a sound stage in Culver City -- they had to recast a Brad Pitt part at the last minute.

Now, actually, they really lucked out, because they got Russell Crowe to commit to the role within a matter of days. But it goes to show you that it's a great inconvenience on the moviemaking side of these businesses. And, of course, chaotic conditions are never good for any business.

Audience reaction

JEFFREY BROWN: Let me ask you, finally and briefly, what do we know so far about how audiences are responding? I guess the first place we would have seen it would be in late-night television. I joked about the politicians. But are audiences watching the reruns at this point?

CARL DIORIO: No, the ratings have plummeted. And it's hard to say whether they'll embrace the new reality shows. It's one thing -- it's like money in the bank to put "American Idol" on the air.

But the quickly -- the hastened productions of a reality sort that will be filling programming grids, these may or may not turn out to be hit shows. But there's no doubt that American TV viewers have shown an appetite for reality television. So the network executives feel they do have a safety net in some of their stopgap programming contingencies.

JEFFREY BROWN: All right, Carl DiOrio of the Hollywood Reporter, thanks very much.

CARL DIORIO: Thank you, Jeff.