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On a Collision Course 

Why TV showrunners could be the collateral damage of this writers’ strike

Wednesday, Nov 14 2007
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AMID ALL THE ON-LOCATION STUDIO and network picketing antics (kids, celebrities, even dogs, walked the line), the tragedy of the writers strike started for real this week as, one by one by one, scripted TV shows went dark. Panicky and even weepy phone calls were made to agents by showrunners and hyphenates fearful that CBS or Fox was going to sue them or fire them and not just suspend them without pay for not performing their producer duties. The conventional wisdom is that the studios and networks are purposely waiting for sufficient weeks to pass so that they can, in a first step to a major reorganization of their TV business, invoke force majeure (a common contract clause that essentially frees both parties from liability or obligation when an extraordinary event, such as a strike, occurs). Once that happens, the deals made with soon-to-be-idle TV showrunners and hyphenates, some of which reach into the seven figures, could be voided. From that point on, all bets are off in the TV biz.

So it was with their nads in their stomachs that 115 showrunners first came to picket en masse at the Walt Disney Studios’ gate, then lunched at the Smoke House in Burbank (where Paradigm talent agency’s billionaire owner, Sam Gores, picked up the check), then gathered at the Writers Guild of America’s Fairfax headquarters for a secret, closed-door meeting to discuss strike-related issues just among themselves. It was a seminal event — not just because they’re never together except at the Emmys, but because this was, by no means, a polite conversation among colleagues. It was heated and vociferous, but it ended in a hard-fought, heavily argued agreement.

The WGA would have everyone believe the showrunners are 90/10 in support of everything strike related. The Alliance of Motion Picture & Television Producers would have everyone believe it’s the other way around. Bullshit from both sides. The forum showed very clearly that the showrunners were overwhelmingly in support of the strike, but they were split 60/40 on the best way to conduct it. The majority voiced absolute support for a 100 percent work stoppage by showrunners as a way to shut down scripted television and hurt the networks and studios. The minority wanted to stop all writing but continue their producing and postproduction duties to maintain the quality of their shit.

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Greg Garcia, who’s in charge of NBC’s My Name Is Earl, spoke about feeling sick when one of his actors helped lock the cut of an episode. “How is two episodes of my show sucking going to hurt GE?” he complained. On the other hand, Greg Daniels of NBC’s The Office boasted of how he stuck it to the moguls by shutting his show down.

The showrunners knew they probably have power for just another month or two. That was why the majority felt they had to “really hurt” the networks/studios right now. But the minority favored using their producing duties as leverage to bring the networks and studios back to good-faith bargaining. Then the voting began. There was even a vote about the vote — whether it had to be unanimous or not.

They agreed that they would return to work and perform their producer duties as soon as the studios return in good faith to the bargaining table. They also agreed to stand by any fellow showrunner who is sued for breach of contract for not crossing the WGA picket line.

IF THE NETWORKS and studiosreally plan on suing or firing the showrunners, then they’re going to smash the very underpinnings of the entire Hollywood system. One of the main reasons that the guilds exist is to perform all the administrative functions that producers don’t want to, like health, pension, credits, arbitration, etc. Crissakes, if the WGA didn’t decide who wrote what for both the writers and the studios, then countless lawsuits emanating from every TV show and movie would gum up the works, while ruthless lawyers chalked up billable hours just for blood sport.

The reality is that the entertainment industry bends over backward not to initiate lawsuits because the powers that be have too much to hide. They don’t want to air their dirty laundry. They don’t want to expose their tricky accounting. They don’t want to sit in a deposition or on a witness stand where opposing counsel can shame them.

What happens when the strike is over (and it will end someday, though probably not until June) and the showrunners and the networks/studios have to work together again? Every mogul to a one has complained to me over the years how there aren’t enough showrunners. So now they’re going to alienate those few they do have?

What’s ironic here is that the Hollywood moguls love showrunners because they’re the driving force, the inspiration, the soul, of TV shows. The bigwigs all claw and fight to hire the best ones for big money. Everyone needs to remember that any breach-of-contract letters are coming from the lawyers in business affairs. Last time I looked, the moguls were their bosses. So I say, no way the network/studio CEOs are going to throw away these valuable assets. Hollywood is still very much a town of relationships, even during a strike. Otherwise, a collaborative business will be toast.

That’s also why it was so adolescent of the AMPTP on Tuesday, after days and days of silence, to suddenly issue a jejune rant from president Nick Counter about how the WGA is using “fear and intimidation” to control its membership by asking members “to inform on each other and create a blacklist of those who question the tactics of the WGA leadership. It’s as unacceptable today as it was when the WGA opposed these tactics in the 1950s.”

The alliance is upset over what it sees as a “rat squad” — a WGA Strike Rules Compliance Committee composed of 12 members whose mission is to investigate allegations that writers are strikebreaking or scab writing. I heard complaints from writers right after the walkout began about how unnerving it was to have strike captains on their own staff scrutinize their every move. On the other hand, it’s rather naive of the AMPTP to think the WGA wouldn’t enforce strike discipline. That’s just Labor 101.

Also naive is the hope that Arnold Schwarzenegger can mediate a settlement. Given the Governator’s past attitudes toward writers (saying to hell with them when he was an actor), his recent comments (equating writers with rich studio heads), and his anti-union political activities (trying to limit unions’ political clout during his first term), he doesn’t even know what middle ground is. Worse, he’s owned by the Hollywood moguls who gave big bucks to his re-election campaign. It’s mere PR that he’s scheduled a few meetings. Hell, with the AMPTP so obstinate, the WGA would accept an offer from Linda Hamilton to help restart talks.

However, there is a glimmer of hope that agents can bring the WGA and AMPTP back within spitting distance. I’ve learned that certain tenpercenters are “really in the middle of this right now” with a partner in one of the major Hollywood agencies having conversations with WGA negotiating-committee topper Dave Young, while at the same time a partner at a different major agency is lobbying AMPTP’s Counter.

On my DeadlineHollywoodDaily.com, I urged Hollywood to “Bring on the Agents.” Hell, these people negotiate for a living. They could do the deal at Craft before the appetizer was cleared and the entrée served. The tenpercenters just had the worst week ever dealing with striking clients who’d been threatened with lawsuits, or suspended, or crying on the phone out of fear for what would happen to them. With negotiations at a standstill, the agency partners offered to do anything possible as a “collective resource.” I’d rather see progress making news than picket lines.

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