Strike could make television more 'real'

Hollywood is humming with movie and TV production, up some 45 percent over last year at this time, according to the Economic Development Corporation of Los Angeles County.

But there is little joy over that figure. Everyone in town knows much of that work is part of a preemptive effort by the entertainment industry to soften the impact of a possible labor strike by guilds representing writers and actors.

Negotiators for the Writers Guild of America are meeting with producers to try to hammer out a new contract before the current one expires May 1. Waiting in the wings are the actors, whose contract expires June 30. All sides are hoping to avoid a strike that nobody in this industry town, from politicians to limo drivers, seems to want.

At issue is money, lots of it, and years of disagreements over how to divvy it up. A key issue for writers is gaining a bigger share of the revenue that comes from their work being viewed via new technologies, such as cable TV and the Internet, which have matured since their last contract was negotiated. Producers contend that market splintering created by the new outlets has made their profit margins razor thin and point to the faltering economy as further reason for not having any profits to give.

All sides have been warily watching and preparing as the deadlines have marched closer. Most observers agree that as the writers go, so will the actors. Hollywood has been gearing up for months for a virtual work shutdown that would be brought on by a double strike.

Viewers will see the impact on TV and movie screens. "Everyone has a lot more reality [TV] in development, which is not union-dependent," says Les Moonves, president and chief operating officer of CBS Television. He will give news shows such as "60 Minutes" and "48 Hours" more airtime and will offer more movies, expanding them from two to three nights a week. "We hope it doesn't come to that, and we hope the strike can be avoided, but we are ready."

Other studios are looking outside the United States for resources. "We are involved in talent scouting overseas, specifically in the UK, for new voices," says Dana Walden of 20th Century Fox Television. "We also are in the middle of producing a couple of new series that we've accelerated that we wouldn't have ... without a strike."

Other producers are also stockpiling current shows. "We've been asked to do 26 shows instead of the regular 22," confirms "Nikki" executive producer Bruce Helford.

Sentiment is running high against the strike. Local unions have threatened to cross picket lines, and Mayor Richard Riordan has commissioned a special report on the economic impact. According to the study, strike-related losses to the city could total $457 million per week, a situation described by the mayor as "a disaster."

The last Writers Guild strike, in 1988, lasted five months.

(c) Copyright 2001. The Christian Science Monitor

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