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A writers' strike nobody wants


How will we get to sleep without David Letterman's "Top 10 List"? Or Stephen Colbert's "The Word"? What if we're left hanging with story interruptus on "Heroes" or "Lost"? Is there life after " 'Til Death?"

In short: Is a writers' strike really inevitable?

OK, so maybe mandatory withdrawal from a few shows would not be an entirely negative experience. But still.

In case you've ignored the sounds of rising panic rippling over Hollywood lately: The networks and studios have been negotiating a new contract with the union representing TV and film writers, and . . . let's just say it's not going well.

If it happens, a strike could wind up being even more damaging than the infamous 1988 writers' walkout, which academics and other observers have generally characterized as a lose-lose. Back then, thousands of people were thrown out of work for more than five months, and some estimates peg the entertainment industry's strike-related losses as high as $500 million.

The TV business has changed a lot since then, in ways that may make a strike even less palatable now. More about that in a minute.

For The Record
Los Angeles Times Tuesday, October 16, 2007 Home Edition Main News Part A Page 2 National Desk 2 inches; 65 words Type of Material: Correction
'Dancing With the Stars': The Channel Island column in Monday's Calendar said that reality shows such as "Dancing With the Stars" would be "strike-proof" if the Writers Guild of America called a strike. In fact, "Dancing With the Stars," unlike many reality series, does operate under a guild contract, although ABC has not indicated whether the show would continue in the event of a strike.

In any case, the Writers Guild of America isn't finding much common ground with the Alliance of Motion Picture and Television Producers, with the sides far apart on issues like splitting revenues from new media and whether reality shows should be unionized. At the conclusion of talks Thursday, the AMPTP fired off a statement ripping the guild for raising what it said were "a number of red herrings and irrelevant financial information." The guild has publicly dissed the producers' group as "not serious" (both sides are due back at the bargaining table Tuesday). If members give the OK, the guild could call a strike as early as Nov. 1.

That is why in the last couple of weeks, the TV business -- networks, studios, writers, agents, managers and everyone else -- has been thrown into a major tizzy. What seemed hypothetical just a month ago has suddenly become uncomfortably real.

Many economists are pointing to a U.S. class gap of 1920s-size proportions, so it's not that surprising that labor unrest is also making a comeback. When Chrysler workers struck for six hours last week, some wags dubbed it a "Hollywood strike" -- that is, just for show.

Plenty of TV veterans are wishing the writers' negotiation could find a way to go Hollywood too ("Can't they avert this?" one talent manager pleaded with me last week). This mess may take a lot more time to sort out than it takes to watch "The Starter Wife."

Studios are cramming to shoot as many episodes of existing series as they can before any work stoppage. Crews on NBC's "Heroes" and ABC's "Ugly Betty" have been hustling like crazy, with multiple units racing to shoot two episodes simultaneously last week. "The studio wants to get as much stuff shot as we can by Nov. 1, but we can only write the show as fast as we can write it," Carlton Cuse and Damon Lindelof, executive producers of "Lost," wrote me in an e-mail. (Cuse sits on the guild's 17-member negotiating committee.)

Some new shows with middling-to-poor ratings -- including NBC's "Journeyman" and CBS' "Cane" -- have received extra script orders.

Network officials aren't talking for the record about their strike plans. But almost everyone agrees that once the supply of new scripted episodes gets burned off -- say, by mid-January -- network prime time schedules would quickly devolve to the two "Rs": reality and repeats. Reality shows generally don't use guild talent, so existing series like "American Idol" and "Dancing With the Stars" would be strike-proof.

There might suddenly be more prime time sports too. And after disappearing almost entirely from network schedules, newsmagazines might come roaring back in style.

Perhaps most important, if the strike lasted for longer than a few weeks, the pilot season -- when networks would start the process of producing new dramas and comedies for the 2008-09 season -- would be thrown into disarray. The networks are already hedging bets by giving some early pilot orders.

In fact, the 1988 strike already offers clues about what we might expect this time around. Back then, newsmagazines like "48 Hours" caught on while scripted shows went dark. Some series, most notably "Moonlighting," never recovered from the disruption. And some folks made a valiant attempt to carry on: The host of NBC's "Late Night With David Letterman" gamely tried to write his own "Top 10 List" for a while.

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