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The scene is set for a long dispute in the writers strike. Enough with the drama; work on the dialogue.

December 17, 2007

The talks between Hollywood studios and writers seem to have entered a new phase: the spin cycle.

Earlier this month, the Alliance of Motion Picture and Television Producers insisted that the writers drop half a dozen demands related to their union's scope and Hollywood accounting. Its representatives then walked out on the negotiations, saying they wouldn't resume talking until those demands were off the table. They've since put out a series of blistering news releases accusing union leaders of caring too much about issues that matter most to, well, union leaders.

On Thursday, the Writers Guild of America fired back, lodging a complaint with the National Labor Relations Board. The union accused the studios of illegally requiring those six demands to be dropped before talks on the rest of the contract continued. According to the union's lawyers, courts have long held that that kind of precondition to negotiating violates federal labor law. The board will now investigate the allegations, but that's just the first step in a process that's likely to take months, if not years, to conclude.

The moves reflect frustration felt by negotiators on both sides, who have formed something of a mutual castigation society. Although both sides have made notable concessions -- the studios dropped a proposal that would have cut residuals sharply, and the writers withdrew a demand to double their take from DVDs -- each complains that the other isn't bargaining in good faith.

There's some substance to their complaints too. One of the six demands at issue would extend the contract's terms to writers for reality TV shows. The studios argue, reasonably, that this contract is the wrong place to decide that because reality TV producers aren't members of their alliance. But the studios also want to take off the table a guild demand that affects how residuals are calculated for scripts used online. That's hard to separate from one of the central issues in this contract: the compensation writers receive when films and TV programs are shown on the Net.

Ultimatums are a time-honored negotiating tactic, as are appeals to the National Labor Relations Board, but they won't bring an end to this strike any time soon. Granted, some of the studios might not mind an extended work stoppage. Their pockets are deeper than the union's; they can endure more pain. And shelving talks with the writers lets the studios seek a precedent-setting deal with another union, the Directors Guild, whose contract talks begin next month.

But as we've said before, the strike's impact extends far beyond the writers and their employers. Hundreds of thousands of jobs are affected in Southern California alone. That's why we urge both sides to dial back the drama and negotiate again. Set aside the six demands that prompted the latest breakdown and try to make progress on other fronts. The union can start the ball rolling with a new counterproposal, but the studios have to be willing to stay engaged.

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