Writers Guild of America Strike Continues

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The forecast is in from Hollywood: Get ready for a long, cold winter of repeats and reality TV.

Tuesday afternoon, the AP reported that Fox's "Back to You" and "'Til Death," ABC's "Desperate Housewives," and CBS' "Rules of Engagement" will stop production and go on hiatus because of the Hollywood writers' strike. The annoucements came a day after the late night comedy shows -- including those of Jay Leno, David Letterman, Jon Stewart and Jimmy Kimmel -- went into reruns.

Members of the Writers Guild of America went on strike early Monday morning after failing to reach an agreement with the major TV networks and movie studios on their contract, which expired Nov. 1. The WGA and the Alliance of Motion Picture and Television Producers, the group representing the major TV networks and movie studios, are at odds over how much of a cut writers should get for online distribution and DVDs of TV shows and movies.

According to experts, unless the two groups meet back at the negotiating table this week, the writers probably won't pick up their pens anytime soon.

And while the world may know Hollywood as a town of stars, it's also a town of unions. With the WGA on strike, it's possible other unions, like the Screen Actors Guild and the Directors Guild of America, both of which have a vested interest in the online/DVD distribution issue, and have contracts with the Alliance of Motion Picture and Television Producers that expire in 2008, could stop working as well.

'Months and Months, Not Weeks and Days.'

"There are a lot of people who think this [strike] is going to be a matter of months and months not weeks and days," said Ben Grossman, the Los Angeles bureau chief for the trade publication Broadcasting & Cable. "This is a marathon, not a sprint."

"Last I heard, there's no plan for them to even be talking, and that's a concern," he said. "There's a feeling that if they don't do something right away, in the first couple days, then we as an industry are going to be settling in for a long, long work stoppage."

Late night comedy shows, whose jokes and jabs are often written day-of-air, are already reeling from the strike. Daytime soap operas, with plotlines penned close to broadcast, will likely be the next victims. Prime-time scripted series will go black in six to seven weeks, when producers run out of banked scripts.

The last writers' strike happened in 1988 and lasted 22 weeks. Its effects on the industry were catastrophic: It cost the industry an estimated $500 million, and the broadcast networks saw a 9 to 10 percent drop in their audience as viewers switched over to cable.

Despite all that, Lois Gray, professor at Cornell University's School of Industrial and Labor Relations, predicts the Alliance of Motion Picture and Television Producers won't give in to the WGA's request to receive more residual profits for online and DVD distribution of shows and movies. While TV may run out of scripts soon, it can fall back on reality programming, game shows and repeats, and the film industry has all the screenplays it needs to put out 2008's blockbusters.

"The producers, especially the motion picture ones, will not be under really heavy pressure to change their position for quite a while," Gray said. "Judging from the early experience, it could be a long strike."
Meanwhile, she said the writers won't budge because they feel they got the short end of the stick when they first made a DVD residuals deal with the Alliance of Motion Picture and Television Producers -- they want to make sure they make more money off online distribution.

But David Rips, Delloite Consulting's director of media and entertainment practice, believes the writers are fighting their battle too soon. He said neither the writers nor the producers and studio executives understand how much new media will affect their industry. Therefore, no one is equipped to say how much writers should make off online distribution.

"The problem is that this is a new media window, and like all other new media windows that have come along, it takes some time for the industry to understand how big the pie is. You can't slice a pie that isn't baked yet," he said. "It's really poor timing on the part of the writers. They're wasting their time right now, and they're going to do mutual damage to themselves and the industry."

Rips' alternative? Mimic the terms of a past residuals deal, like the one the WGA and Alliance of Motion Picture and Television Producers originally agreed to for DVDs, and pick up the negotiations again in two years, when the new media market matures.

"Things are changing very fast, and no one is certain at all what's going to be happening in the next six months, let alone two or three years," Rips said. "They have to collaborate to buy some time until this market matures."

Sympathy Strikes Possible

But as long as the WGA walks the picket lines, they'll drum up support from others in the industry, and it's not unlikely that other unions grappling with the online distribution issue will join their ranks.

"Part of the strength of the writers union will be how much support they get from other unions," Gray said. "SGA and DGA contracts are coming up. If all the unions are very solid in their position, because they all have a stake in the residual issue, that would of course be a very strong pressure on the employers to go ahead and settle."

Other unions could strike as well. Last week, Local 399, a Hollywood Teamsters union representing truck drivers, casting directors and location managers, told its members that while the union has a legal responsibility to abide by contracts with producers, individuals are protected by federal law if they decide to honor the WGA's picket lines.

"[Sympathy strikes] could definitely happen," said David Gregory, professor of labor law at New York's St. John's University. "When GM was dealing with a strike earlier this year, the Teamsters said they would honor the picket lines. There's definitely more of an immediate sense of militancy and a sense of workers saying we hang together."

Already, famous faces in front of the camera have voiced their support for writers behind the scenes. Jay Leno made an appearance at the Burbank studio where his show is taped to visit strikers walking a picket line. Julia Louis-Dreyfus, the "Seinfeld" alum and star of CBS' "The New Adventures of Old Christine," marched along with writers outside Warner Brothers' Burbank studios. And Tina Fey, creator and star of the NBC sitcom "30 Rock," picketed with WGA members outside NBC's Rockefeller Center studio in New York.

While those in the industry may stand up for the writers, Gray said it's unlikely the public will turn off their TVs in protest just because they see footage of picket lines on the news.

"Striking dramatizes the struggle ... [but] it's so indirect in that industry. It's not like picketing a food store. I mean, is anyone going to stop watching television? No, probably not," she said. "But public opinion will very often influence the parties. If it turns against the employers, that will put them under pressure, because they need to sell to the public."

The Associated Press contributed to this report.