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As the plot turns: Hollywood writers’ strike has twists

Writers Guild of America rally
REUTERS/Mario Anzuoni
For the past seven weeks, striking members of the Writers Guild of America have been walking picket lines and holding rallies like this Nov. 20 gathering in Hollywood. The key issue is residual payments for the online airing of programs.


Folks in flyover land could be forgiven if they’ve let the Hollywood writers’ strike simmer without much attention while they digested revelations of destroyed CIA interrogation videos and steroid-enhanced baseball heroes. But new strike dynamics just might capture wider attention.

Just hours ago, the union representing striking writers refused to allow its members to write for Hollywood’s biggest events — the Academy Awards and Golden Globe ceremonies. Earlier Monday, as top soap-opera stars lent a little glamour to 2007’s final day of picketing (it’ll resume Jan. 7) by the Writers Guild of America (WGA), late-night TV hosts Jay Leno and Conan O’Brien announced they’d return to the air Jan. 2 sans writers.

That late-night development “could cut both ways for the union,” wrote David Bauder of the Associated Press. “Suspended late-night programming has been the most visible sign of the strike for the viewing public, and bringing the shows back could remove a significant piece of leverage. At the same time, the hosts could come back and pepper their network bosses with ridicule in support of the writers’ cause.”

That’s what Johnny Carson did in 1988, Bauder noted, “when he similarly returned to the air after two months off during a writers’ strike then. Carson worked without writers for three weeks and then reached a separate deal with the union to bring his staff back.”

Leno, O’Brien coming back without writers
Leno and O’Brien will really have to be on their improv toes — or else invite a lot of guests to fill time (and how many celebrity guests will cross a picket line is an unanswered question). According to the Los Angeles Times, “their writerless programs will have to rely on quite a bit of ad libbing; under the WGA’s strike rules, the NBC hosts will not be able to write material for their shows that would have otherwise been penned by their writing staffs.” Furthermore, they may soon get formidable competition from David Letterman, who “is said to be negotiating a deal for his company, Worldwide Pants, to get a waiver from the WGA, which would allow him to return to the air with their permission, and with his full corps of writers on board,” wrote Hollywood Today.

The AP’s Bauder observed that “the prospect of a Letterman show with its writers competing for a prolonged period against Leno without writers … could give Letterman a competitive edge in a time slot where Leno has dominated in the ratings for the past decade.”

But which shows benefit or get hurt by all this is secondary to the strike issues themselves — and whether the two sides can come together. Talks have broken down and may not resume for weeks. At issue, writes the Los Angeles Times in a handy chart, are the following:

What writers want

· Residuals for shows and movies streamed over the Web and on cell phones.

· A doubling of residual payments from home video sales.

· Extension of guild pay and benefits to writers on reality TV programs.

What producers say

· DVD sales are needed to offset rising marketing and production costs.

· It’s too early to lock into pay formulas for online shows because technologies are changing rapidly.

· No pay for streaming of TV shows on the Web because it is a form of promotion.

There’s more, which the Times’ online “Strike Zone” chronicles closely, but its shorthand captures much of the argument. The Internet is key; the writers “know their future depends on the Internet,” wrote Robert J. Elisberg on the Huffington Post blog, and they know that if future writers are to make a living, new-media terms must be negotiated.

The strikers, by the way, appear to have a distinct advantage in the media: colorful, impassioned writers like Elisberg and Alec Baldwin commenting in the blogosphere — while the Alliance of Motion Picture and Television Producers (AMPTP), unfortunately for it, has lawyerly scribes parsing its points. As for the public, be prepared to either watch ad-libbing Lenos, reruns or reality shows during the long, dark winter — or get out the cross-country skis.

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