Striking writers face new challenges

Cindy Kaffen reports on the writers' strike as late-night talk show hosts return to the air.

THE NEW year on television will begin with picket lines. The Writers Guild of America (WGA) announced plans to picket NBC studios as The Tonight Show with Jay Leno and other late night TV talk shows go back on the air with new episodes for the first time since the strike began November 1.

On January 7, Comedy Central's The Daily Show with Jon Stewart and The Colbert Report will also resume production without their writers, and will also be picketed.

"Our picket will not be of the hosts themselves, but the companies for which their shows are produced," wrote WGA-East President Michael Winship. "Our purpose is to continue awareness of our strike and the media conglomerates against which we strike, and to encourage performers, politicians and others to honor our picket line and not appear as guests on these struck programs."

The WGA believes that Leno and Jimmy Kimmel, who have been supportive of the striking writers, have been forced back on the air in competition with the Late Show with David Letterman, whose Worldwide Pants production company has made a separate agreement with the WGA.

The agreement includes the The Late Late Show with Craig Ferguson, also produced by Worldwide Pants. Late Show writers plan to use Letterman's sympathy for the strikers to raise public awareness of the strike and press the writers' case.

The separate agreement between the WGA and Worldwide Pants is part of the Guild's strategy to try to make contracts with smaller production companies, in hopes of breaking down the unity of the Alliance of Motion Picture and Television Producers (AMPTP).

The producers' hardball tactics, including breaking off negotiations in December, are led by multinational conglomerates like Fox Corp. and Viacom that can better afford the financial impact of the strike.

In its 1988 strike, the WGA signed separate agreements with over 100 smaller production companies, including the Cosby Show, to try and split the producers.

Pierce Gardner, a features writer and WGA member since 1996, said at a WGA rally December 18, "It's all about how much economic damage we can do to make them come to their senses."

Ethan Reiff, a creator of the show Sleeper Cell and WGA member since 1991, added: "There were three strikes in the '80s where the union folded, because fractures happened between different segments [of the writers]. But now we're united because the Internet affects everyone in this union."

According to a report by the Wall Street firm Bear Stearns, "From Wall Street's perspective, we estimate the impact of accepting the [writers'] proposal is largely negligible." This would seem to bolster the Guild's argument that the AMPTP is most concerned about preventing the contract with the Guild from setting a pattern for other Hollywood unions in revenue-sharing for programs distributed via new media.

The Directors Guild of America (DGA) has a contract expiring June 30. While the DGA delayed the beginning of the talks to support the writers, many writers are concerned the directors may cut a separate deal, noting that the chair of the DGA's negotiating committee, Gil Cates, is also the producer for this year's Academy Awards broadcast.

The Screen Actors Guild (SAG), with its own contract for its 120,000 members expiring June 30, has reiterated its support for the WGA. In a December letter to WGA members, SAG President Alan Rosenberg wrote "[W]e know that this fight is for the rights of all creative artists, and our collective future is at stake."

Meanwhile, the WGA has denied a waiver for the Golden Globe Awards program and plans to picket the show. It has also denied the use of clips from movies and past Academy Awards shows for this year's Oscars broadcast.

The WGA also filed a complaint December 13 with the National Labor Relations Board, claiming that the AMPTP violated federal law by issuing an ultimatum and unilaterally breaking off negotiations on December 7.

A December 20 USA Today/Gallup poll shows that 60 percent of Americans support the WGA against the media corporations.

At a Los Angeles City Council meeting, the cost of lost wages because of the strike was estimated at $350 million, with an additional $300 million in losses from production-related goods and services.

Gillian Russom contributed to this article.