Sunday, January 21, 2001

TV writers' strike will have unhappy ending

By John Kiesewetter
The Cincinnati Enquirer

        PASADENA, Calif. — Strike two, and we're out? That's the buzz in Hollywood, where studio and network executives say a May strike by the Writers Guild of America (WGA) — the second since 1988 — will have a devastating impact on the industry, and irrevocably change our TV habits.

        Viewers are already seeing a sample of inexpensive, unscripted reality series such as Survivor and The Mole that could dominate network prime-time schedules during a strike. And for years after that.

        Welcome to a preview of TV's new reality in 2001.

        “In 1988, we lost 9 percent of our audience following the strike,” says Peter Roth, president of Warner Bros. Television, which produces ER, The West Wing, The Drew Carey Show, Friends and Gilmore Girls.

        “Now almost 12 years later, with the proliferation of choices for the viewer, a strike drives viewers away from network television at a time when we can least afford it,” he says.

        Seven TV studio presidents, speaking at a Television Critics Association panel here, unanimously predicted that writers and/or actors will strike this spring and/or summer.

        The WGA contract with TV and film studios expires May 1. The Screen Actors Guild (SAG) pact ends June 30.

        A strike by one or both unions is unavoidable, says Dana Walden, president of 20th Century Fox Television, which produces Dharma & Greg, Judging Amy, Ally McBeal, The X-Files, The Simpsons and Buffy the Vampire Slayer.

        “It seems inevitable because both positions are entrenched enough that a resolution doesn't seem quickly on the horizon,” Ms. Walden says.

        WGA President John Wells (executive producer of ER and The West Wing) and guild negotiators will meet Monday with studio representatives. They have set aside the next two weeks for substantive negotiations, instead of waiting until the final days of the contract, says Michael Mahern, WGA secretary-treasurer.

        Writers are preparing to strike over demands to change the entire TV industry economic model, which the WGA says will cost studios $740 million over the next three-year contract.

        In a nutshell, writers want higher residual fees from Fox, cable, international, home video and DVD sales — more on par with what they have received for years from the big three networks. Writers didn't demand their normal cut from Fox and cable since the 1980s “to protect infant corporations,” says Mr. Mahern, a former New York Undercover writer.

        “Foreign money is now about half the revenue stream on every movie on television,” says Brad Wigor, a Cincinnati native and WGA member who has produced and directed movies for CBS and Showtime. “Emerging business abroad is built on an economic model that is out of date.”

        All parties are bracing for a strike. Malcolm in the Middle creator Linwood Boomer says he summoned his staff several months ago and told them “to start saving money.”

        Peter Aronson, a guild member and president of Regency Television (Malcolm in the Middle, Roswell), says he's “deeply conflicted” about the possible strike.

        “There are some serious issues at hand. It's not pleasant out there,” says Mr. Aronson, a writer on Fox's Herman's Head sitcom in 1992.

        TV executives say a strike is likely because 54 percent of the WGA's 9,000-plus members earned money writing last year. “So you have to ask yourself: What's the impetus for them to vote against a strike?” Mr. Aron son says.

        Networks have stockpiled midseason replacement series, movies and additional episodes of Law & Order, Whose Line Is It Anyway?, Baby Blues, 60 Minutes and other news magazines. If writers strike May 1, networks may pull season-ending original programs from May and hold them until fall, says WB CEO Jamie Kellner.

        Development of unscripted reality series also has been shoved into high gear at all networks. “Everybody has a lot more reality in development, which is not union-dependent,” says CBS Television President Les Moonves.

        If reality shows like Temptation Island, The Mole, Love Cruise or The Runner are huge hits, inexpensive unscripted shows could supplant scripted dramas and sitcoms from the prime-time landscape the way news magazines gobbled up time slots in the 1990s.

        “The legacy of the last writers' strike in my mind is 20/20 and Dateline on three or four nights a week,” says guild member Don Reo, who has written for M*A*S*H, The Mary Tyler Moore Show, Sanford and Son, All in the Family, Blossom and Action.

        “Those were put in as a stop-gap measure at that time, and they've lasted and taken away programming that used to be (entertainment) hours or half-hours. The same thing is going to happen here (with reality shows),” Mr. Reo says.

        The economics of reality programming are stunning. A one-hour show like Survivor replaces two sitcoms, which had come from a pool of six pilots, which had been selected from about two dozen scripts, says NBC West Coast President Scott Sassa.

        If replacement reality series draw huge ratings and revenues, “you'll see a future with less scripted drama and comedy than you have on the networks today — which is going to be the exact opposite of what the Hollywood community is looking to have happen,” Mr. Kellner says.

        Much could change by May. The process starts here Monday.

        “We're encouraged that the writers will sit down early and start talking,” says Jerry Bruckheimer, executive producer of CBS' rookie hit C.S.I.: Crime Scene Investigation.

        “So we have our fingers crossed,” Mr. Bruckheimer says. “But we prepare for the worst.”


        • Season-ending episodes usually aired in May might be delayed until fall.

        • Fewer comedy and drama series.

        • More inexpensive, unscripted reality series.


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