The Writers Guild of America ordered its members to go out on strike against the movie and television industry beginning today.
The development came Sunday night with the collapse of contract talks between the 9,000-member guild and about 200 companies represented by the Alliance of Motion Picture and Television Producers.
The strike was set to begin at 9 a.m. in Los Angeles for members of the Western branch of the guild and at noon in New York, for East Coast guild members.
Writers and producers disagreed sharply about the likely impact of the work stoppage.
But both sides agreed that daily TV programs--including soap operas, talk shows and game shows--could be quickly affected.
A prolonged strike might severely disrupt movie and TV production. But many prime-time shows are headed for a seasonal production slowdown, and film makers can work for several months with the scripts they have in hand.
"We anticipate a very long strike," said J. Nicholas Counter III, chief negotiator for the producers.
Counter said the producers were not prepared to go beyond a final offer that he asserted would raise writers' pay by $50 million over three years, although it called for a reduction in residuals for many one-hour TV shows.
Brian Walton, chief negotiator for the guild, said a wide gap remained between the companies and the union in a number of areas--including the one-hour shows, foreign residuals and creative rights for writers.
"This is not a strike out of pique. We're ready to meet with them and deal reasonably," Walton said.
According to both sides, no new talks were scheduled.
The guild said it planned to begin picketing today at 10 a.m. at 20th Century Fox Film Corp. in Century City. Walton said picketing would widen to other sites later in the week. All the major studios and networks and most independent producers are affected by the strike. Under the guild's strike rules, writers are barred from submitting scripts to studios, or revising scripts already in hand.
A two-week writers' strike in 1985 had little impact on the industry. But a three-month strike in 1981 delayed the start of the fall TV season.
Some studio executives quickly dismissed the strike's likely effect.
"A short strike would have minimal impact on us," Fox President Leonard Goldberg said. "We've worked toward getting in as much (movie and TV) material as possible before a strike. We have lots of material."
'Blessing in Disguise'
Sidney Sheinberg, president of MCA Inc., said: "So many of our programs are being made under financial conditions that result in deficits to us, it might be a blessing in disguise if they weren't made."
MCA's Universal Television unit produces a number of one-hour TV shows, including "Murder, She Wrote" and "Miami Vice."
Producers claim they racked up an industry-wide deficit of $268 million last year, because they produce some shows at a loss for the networks, and haven't been able to make up their costs with re-run sales due to softness in the syndication markets.
Re-runs would sell more readily if writers--and perhaps later actors--would soften their residual demands, the producers claim.
Currently, a fixed dollar-amount of residuals covering the entire country must be paid, even if a program is sold in a single city.
Last summer, the Directors Guild of America agreed to take residuals on a percentage basis for more limited sales. But writers have balked at that formula, arguing that any problem with the shows is temporary, and that entertainment companies are making record profits.
In a statement, the alliance said it had offered to increase writers' pay by 10% over three years, and offered a 67% increase in basic cable residuals.
Counter said writers were "unrealistic" to expect more, and claimed that Hollywood companies had increased writers' compensation by 80% through the 1980s.
Walton and other guild negotiators have claimed that companies should sharply increase foreign residuals, to reflect a boom in TV sales abroad. Privately, many writers have said they will not accept any percentage-based residual formula, because they do not trust studio accounting.
Despite company claims that most shows will not be quickly affected, some guild sources maintain that half-hour comedies, such as NBC's "The Cosby Show" and the Fox network's "Tracey Ullman Show" could be hurt by a strike, because such programs usually require rewrites right up to taping.
Negotiations had continued throughout the weekend at alliance headquarters in Sherman Oaks.
Last week, guild members overwhelmingly authorized their directors to call a strike after union negotiators recommended rejection of what the producers had previously called a final contract offer. The old contract expired a week ago today.
Times staff writer Ronald L. Soble contributed to this article.