NBC's top-rated "The Cosby Show" became the first major casualty of the two-day-old Writers Guild of America strike, as the network said Wednesday that the series had to shut down production because scripts for three remaining episodes weren't ready before the walkout began.
Although the networks say most of their prime-time series can complete their normal run this season, polishing and rewriting of scripts for Bill Cosby's popular family comedy tends to go on until right before the show is taped, an NBC spokeswoman said.
Cosby's series, taped in New York, had an order for 25 episodes this season. It now will end its season three weeks early, with the final first-run episode aired on March 28, preceded by a repeat episode on March 21, NBC said.
As originally planned, the show's final episode was to have served as a pilot for a spin-off series starring Tony Orlando as a social worker. If the strike ends in time and production can resume, that episode will be taped and may be used as the opener for the series' second season, the spokeswoman said.
Meanwhile, there appeared to be a breakthrough in the contract dispute when guild officials briefly met Wednesday with management at the Los Angeles office of a federal mediator who had asked both sides to meet with him in hopes of avoiding a long, costly strike.
After the 15-minute session, each side agreed to resume negotiations, with the mediator present, at 2 p.m. today at the Sherman Oaks office of the Alliance of Motion Picture and Television Producers, which is representing the TV networks, major studios and TV and film executives.
The alliance was the first to agree to attend Wednesday's session, the first face-to-face meeting between negotiators for each side since last Thursday.
The guild's decision to attend Wednesday's conference was decided that morning, a guild official said. But the announcement of it came only an hour before the 3 p.m. meeting with Commissioner Leonard Farrell of the Federal Mediation and Conciliation Service.
The guild last struck the industry for 13 weeks in 1981.
Lionel Chetwynd, spokesman for an anti-strike faction in the guild known as the Union Blues, said his group on Tuesday sent a plea to both the guild and management to end their mutual acrimony and "return immediately" to negotiations.
The guild has filed a complaint with the National Labor Relations Board, accusing the alliance of refusing to negotiate in good faith. The alliance has denied the charge, calling it "wholly frivolous and reckless."
Chetwynd said his group, which last Friday unsuccessfully urged guild members to ratify what the alliance called its "best and final" three-year contract offer, sent guild and alliance leaders a telegram that said in part:
"The essential and mutual interests of our industry demand that negotiations resume and that a devastating strike be avoided. The real differences on the economic issues are slight and we are convinced that with a final effort, outstanding positions can be resolved with one day's hard work."
"We know it (the telegram) was received and understood by each side, but beyond that we can't comment right now," Chetwynd said Wednesday. But he expressed hope that each side would heed his group's plea.
"It's obvious the two sides don't like each other," he said. But he added that he thought that with hard and immediate bargaining by the guild and management, "there's no reason why this (the strike) can't be over by Friday."
The guild's old contract with the alliance expired at midnight last Thursday. Picketing is scheduled to start Tuesday at as yet-unannounced locations here and in New York.