"Hill Street Blues" writer Jeffrey Lewis was out for a Saturday-afternoon drive when he heard "MASH" creator Larry Gelbart ask something over KUSC-FM (91.5) that made him hit the brakes.
"Deborah, would you go out for five months to gain this cassette issue in our favor?" Gelbart was asking a young Writers Guild of America member during the Saturday afternoon radio show "Live From Trumps."
When writer Deborah Amelon answered that she would, indeed, continue the WGA strike (now in its 14th day), Lewis swung the car around and headed for the trendy West Hollywood restaurant from which the talk show aired.
"I didn't even know the show was on," Lewis said later. "I was trying to get 'Prairie Home Companion' (the program at 6 p.m. Saturdays, immediately following the Trumps talk show) and I get this!"
What he got was the weekly broadcast of the live talk show that has been airing from a corner booth at Trumps for the last six months. The program usually deals with more esoteric issues, such as Los Angeles architecture or Equity-Waiver theater.
But, purely by coincidence, insists KUSC General Manager Wally Smith, Saturday's "Live From Trumps" guests and topic made for a much more controversial program. WGA member Nicholas Meyer had been scheduled to talk about the art of screenwriting. With last week's fiery contract-ratification session at the Hollywood Palladium, followed by Friday's WGA picketing at CBS Television City, however, "Live From Trumps" was suddenly topical.
Meyer's guests, WGA Executive Director Naomi Gurian, Gelbart and Amelon, focused on a key issue of the contract proposal: the writers' share of the burgeoning videocassette market.
"I don't think we've had as central and as hot an issue and one which will so affect our futures," Gelbart said. "All of our futures. Television shows are now being packaged as cassettes. There are 75 'Star Treks' now available for sale as cassettes. . . ."
Gelbart pointed out that he has an interest in getting an increased share of any videocassette sales revenue from 250 "MASH" episodes.
But, he added, the videocassette is also the wave of the future and "seems to have, just in dollars and cents, an aura of being the single most expensive issue we've ever talked about, for young writers and old."
When Lewis arrived near the end of the show, he tried to join the discussion, but Smith told him that "Live From Trumps" was not a listener-participation program.
But Smith did allow Lewis to write out a question for Meyer to read on the air.
Wasn't the videocassette question an emotional issue designed "to frame an emotional backbone for an extended writers strike?"
Though the sharing of videocassette revenue with producers does have its emotional side issues, Gurian answered over the air, basically, she said, "It's purely an economic issue."
"We're talking dollars and cents, not emotion," Gelbart added. "People get emotional when they talk about money. . . .
"We have millions of dollars owed us. We want them."
After the broadcast, Lewis reflected, "There was an implicit assumption that the strike could be won."
Lewis said that until last week he had been relatively disinterested in how the contract negotiations were being handled. Now he's not so sure that going on strike is a great idea, and contends that the videocassette issue may simply be a means of whipping up a rank-and-file membership into approving a long strike, which he thinks is "unwinnable."
"I know (of) a number of unions that have gone out on issues that had an emotional meaning for them: the British coal miners, the air traffic controllers . . .
"I like the Writers Guild and I want it to prosper, but I think it should be careful and exercise prudence with its strike power."
This evening, Lewis, Gelbart and Meyer and the rest of the 7,100 members of the guild will meet again to decide whether to continue their strike. The videocassette controversy that so concerned Lewis, Gelbart and Meyer on Saturday at Trumps is only one of more than 200 proposals that are part of the proposed 315-page contract.
About the only issue settled Saturday was that KUSC is going to put in a listener-participation telephone line for its suddenly controversial Saturday-afternoon arts and culture talk show.