As writers' strike nears end, Hollywood assesses the damage
A tentative deal between screenwriters and studios comes in time to save some shows. Others will not survive.
The probable end of the Hollywood writers' strike – almost certain now that the studios and the Writers Guild of America (WGA) reached a tentative agreement and, on Sunday, began their ratification process – has the creative community heaving a sigh of relief. But as writers prepare to crank up their dream machine, there is recognition that all will not be as it was before.
True, TV networks can salvage some of the season. Fall pilots can swing back into gear. New feature films can resume production. The Academy Awards telecast will probably go on as planned.
But the strike's long duration means some once-promising shows will not return, others may stumble, and not every writer will have a job to come back to. Network executives, for their part, are coming to grips with the fact that the money they saved on cheaper programming since Nov. 4, when the writers went on strike, was not worth the resulting loss in TV viewership.
"It's not all we wanted," says Ian Gurvitz, a scribe for the TV series "Becker," standing in front of the Shrine Auditorium Saturday night after an estimated 3,000 guild members inside gave their leadership several standing ovations in response to the new agreement. "But you have to think about how long you stay out."
A timely agreement
The tentative agreement comes in the nick of time, say some industry analysts.
"At least this way we can salvage a good pilot season so that the impact doesn't roll into next fall's programming," says Marc Berman, a TV analyst for Media Week magazine. But a resolution may come too late for some of this season's freshman shows that didn't get enough air time to establish a loyal audience and good, consistent ratings, he notes.
"Look at a show like [ABC's] 'Pushing Daisies' – every critic raved … – but it was losing a little bit of steam and now will anyone remember it anymore?" asks Mr. Berman. "They have to pick up the pieces and see if they can get back to business."
Industry analysts say sitcoms could return in four to six weeks; dramas will take a bit longer.
The most important sticking point of the strike was who profits from TV shows and movies played on the Internet, both first-run and secondary uses. In an e-mail sent to the guild membership, WGA leaders made clear they felt they had won a major victory.
"It is an agreement that protects a future in which the Internet becomes the primary means of both content creation and delivery," said WGA West president Patric Verrone and WGA East president Michael Winship in a released statement. "It creates formulas for revenue-based residuals in new media, provides access to deals and financial data to help us evaluate and enforce those formulas, and establishes the principle that, 'When they get paid, we get paid.' "
On the other hand, the contract has a bitter pill for some, particularly those who remember the 1988 WGA strike that lasted five months, says writer Andy Nordvall, a writer's assistant on CW Television's "The Game," interviewed by phone upon his return from Sunday's union meeting.
"In 1988, the guild backed down on its demands for higher DVD residuals, which cost writers billions," he says. "This current contract doesn't fight for higher DVD residuals, and it doesn't give us the right to automatically get what other unions negotiate. But you have to pick your battles."
Nonetheless, strike-weary writers are embracing the opportunity to get back to work, probably by Wednesday and perhaps sooner. Governing boards of both the WGA West and WGA East were to set to vote after press time Sunday on ratifying the three-year deal with the Alliance of Motion Picture and Television Producers. They were also expected to initiate a special 48-hour vote among members about whether to call off the strike, according to industry publication Variety.
Writers feel pressure to deliver
Some writers, interviewed as they left the union meeting Sunday, acknowledged that a return to work might mean more pressure to come up with great material.
"I am sure we will go home to some phone calls that ask, 'Hey, when's that new content coming in?' " says Jeffrey Lieber, co-creator for ABC's "Lost." "But this definitely seems like a victory. This deal would have been unimaginable three months ago."
Chauncey Raglin-Washington, who worked on the FX channel's "Lucky" and a UPN show called "Half & Half," says the pressure is not for any old content but for really good writing. "There is extra pressure to come up with good stuff because the producers and studios will be thinking, 'Let's see if this was worth the compromise,' " he says.
Dave Polsky, staff writer for "Frank TV," is not sure when he will be asked to return to work, but he is relieved it's almost over and lauds WGA leadership for doing "a great job."
"Before the strike happened, writers were losing the ability to secure their future," he says. "It felt like it was slipping away. Now, we've turned a corner."
One key question still nags at feature film writers: Will they face another work stoppage in June when the Screen Actors Guild renegotiates its contract?
• Alison Tully contributed to this report.