WGA strike will affect late-night talk first

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With the Writers Guild of America now out on strike, viewers began to notice the impact last night if they stayed up late to watch David Letterman or Jay Leno. Normally in November -- one of the sweeps months when the number of viewers watching is measured to set future local ad rates -- these shows would be new. Last night, they were not.

Late-night talk shows on ABC, CBS and NBC, plus Comedy Central's "The Daily Show With Jon Stewart" and "The Colbert Report," are all in repeats this week. It's possible that some of these shows could return with their hosts but without writers; networks are evaluating their options on a day-by-day basis.

That may be the only impact on viewers if the labor dispute that began yesterday is settled quickly, but many Hollywood observers think it could drag out. The strike is the first walkout by writers since 1988. That work stoppage lasted 22 weeks and cost the industry more than $500 million.

The contract between the 12,000-member Writers Guild of America and the Alliance of Motion Picture and Television Producers expired Oct. 31. Talks that began this summer failed to produce much progress. Writers' demands for a bigger slice of DVD profits and revenue from the distribution of films and TV shows over the Internet has been a key issue.

"They claim that the new media is still too new to structure a model for compensation," said Jose Arroyo, a writer for "Late Night With Conan O'Brien." "We say give us a percentage so if they make money, we make money."

Negotiators met Sunday for nearly 11 hours before East Coast members of the writers union announced on their Web site that the strike had begun for their 4,000 members.

The Alliance of Motion Picture and Television Producers said writers were not willing to compromise on major issues, while writers said they withdrew a proposal to increase their share of revenue from the sale of DVDs that had been a stumbling block for producers. They also said proposals by producers in the area of Internet reuse of TV episodes and films were unacceptable.

Daytime soap operas, which typically tape about a week's worth of shows in advance, will be next to feel the impact of a work stoppage. NBC's "Days of Our Lives" has scripts that will take it through January. CBS's daytime soaps have scripts completed at least until the end of the year, with some prepared to stay in original episodes well into February. ABC's soaps are written "well into the new year," the network said in a statement.

The strike will not have an immediate impact on production of movies or currently airing prime-time TV programs. However, ABC has pushed back indefinitely the late November premiere of new drama series "Cashmere Mafia." Most studios have stockpiled dozens of movie scripts, and TV shows have enough scripts or completed shows in hand to last until early next year.

"We're heading into a period of time as we get closer to December where most of the [broadcast] networks would go into repeats anyway," said Sheraden native Brett King, senior vice president of scripted programming at BET. "I don't know if people will notice for some time out in the world."

King said the strike's impact on cable will vary by networks and by project. He noted BET's first scripted drama, written by a WGA writer, has now stopped in its tracks. But a scripted comedy by a non-union writer will proceed into production in Georgia, a right-to-work state, early next year.

Locally, film production is expected to proceed. Dawn Keezer, director of the Pittsburgh Film Office, said the currently filming "Adventureland" will continue and director Kevin Smith's new movie is still expected to begin filming in January.

"It's not going to do anything to Pittsburgh right this second," Keezer said. "But any hopes for new television will be put on hold at this point."

That includes season two of Spike TV's "The Kill Point." Although the network has not yet announced a second season for the drama that filmed in Pittsburgh earlier this year, writer/producer Todd Harthan said he and writer James DeMonaco already had turned in an outline to Spike TV for two additional six-episode miniseries that were enthusiastically received.

"We were literally going to start working on our contracts for writing the next six episodes when it started hitting the trades that everything had collapsed [in negotiations last month]," he said. "The phone was ringing constantly before that day, then, Boom! It was done. We didn't hear a word."

Harthan remains optimistic that once the strike ends Spike TV will still green-light a second season, returning star Donnie Wahlberg and other cast members to Pittsburgh for filming. But there's no guarantee.

"We had so much behind-the-scenes momentum," Harthan said. "We will certainly lose some of that, but there was enough [internal] excitement around the concept of season two. I'm so damn excited to go back to Pittsburgh."

Harthan said the impact in Los Angeles will be more widespread than in places where filmmaking is not as much a part of the economy.

"One of my good writer friends in town said he was going to turn his garage into a writer's office, unless there was a strike, so now it trickles down to his contractor feeling it" when he's not hired to do the remodeling work, Harthan said.

Picketing began early yesterday in New York, outside the "Today" show set. A giant, inflated rat was displayed Monday morning near the NBC studios as about 40 people in Rockefeller Center shouted, "No contract, no shows!"

On the West Coast, Jay Leno made a midmorning stop at NBC studios in Burbank and visited with strikers after the network said his late-night show would immediately go into reruns.

At the CBS lot in Studio City, about 40 people hoisted signs and applauded when picketing began.

One key factor that could determine the damage caused by the strike is whether members of a powerful Hollywood Teamsters local honor the picket lines. Local 399, which represents truck drivers, casting directors and location managers, had told its members that as a union, it has a legal obligation to honor its contracts with producers.

But the clause does not apply to individuals, who are protected by federal law from employer retribution if they decide to honor picket lines, the local said.

The battle has broad implications for the way Hollywood does business, since whatever deal is struck by writers will likely be used as a template for talks with actors and directors, whose contracts expire next June.

"We'll get what they get," Screen Actors Guild president Alan Rosenberg said.

The Associated Press contributed to this report. TV editor Rob Owen can be reached at rowen@post-gazette.com or 412-263-2582. Ask TV questions at post-gazette.com/tv under TV Q&A. First Published November 6, 2007 5:00 AM


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