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STRIKE REPORT

Writers take eye off CBS

An event aimed at putting pressure on the network via investors is abruptly canceled.

January 31, 2008|Richard Verrier and Claudia Eller | Times Staff Writers

The Writers Guild of America abruptly scrapped a controversial event it had planned in New York next week targeting investors of CBS Corp., one of the media companies with which it is in contract talks.

The guild had invited dozens of Wall Street analysts to a one-hour presentation Tuesday on how the 3-month-old writers strike has negatively affected the television networks and CBS in particular.

The unusual event was part of a strategy to pressure conglomerates through their shareholders to reach a deal with writers. But it prompted an angry response from some executives whose studios are in talks with the writers.

As of early Wednesday, several analysts contacted by The Times said they were planning to attend the session. By late afternoon, however, guild leaders had decided to pull the plug, according to two people close to the matter. Guild officials declined to comment.

A letter of invitation was sent to analysts Friday, the same day CBS Chief Executive Leslie Moonves had dinner with guild leaders Patric M. Verrone and David Young in Beverly Hills. But Moonves didn't learn about the event until this week and was taken aback that he had not been informed about it, a person close to the matter said.

A CBS spokesman declined to comment.

The letter, written by Young, the guild's chief negotiator, highlighted how the strike was taking a bigger toll on CBS than any other network. CBS, which is highly dependent on advertising revenue from its broadcast network and television stations, is much less diversified than other networks owned by media giants.

"As you probably know, most analysts view CBS as being especially vulnerable to the writers strike because of its concentration in network television," Young wrote, noting that an extended walkout would hurt the upcoming pilot season for fall TV series and advertising sales that traditionally occur in early May.

In the letter, Young said the session also would cover the guild's concerns regarding possible "conflicts of interest" between CBS and its sister company, Viacom Inc., which are both controlled by media mogul Sumner Redstone. Young did not elaborate.

The strike began in the middle of the fall TV season, halting production and forcing networks to rely heavily on reruns, reality TV shows and unscripted fare.

CBS' ratings this season are down 14% from last year in the key 18-49 age demographic coveted by advertisers. ABC's ratings in the same category fell 11% while NBC's dropped 9%. Fox, buoyed by "American Idol," saw its ratings jump by 9%, according to Nielsen Media Research.

The guild has previously taken its message to the investment community. A week after the strike began, writers staged pickets on Wall Street to underscore their fight for a larger piece of the Internet revenue pie.

The now-scotched Tuesday meeting is typical of the "corporate campaign" strategy that Young, a veteran labor organizer, has occasionally employed since he became the guild's executive director two years ago. The aim is to pressure companies by lobbying boards of directors and staging protests at shareholder meetings, said Daniel J.B. Mitchell, professor of management and public policy at UCLA.

Mitchell said the guild's goal may have been to send a message to the studios that even though talks are progressing, "you shouldn't think we're a bunch of softies, and that we're continuing to exert whatever leverage we have now."

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richard.verrier@latimes.com

claudia.eller@latimes.com

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