Strike two, and were out?
Thats the buzz in Hollywood, where studio and network executives say a May strike by the Writers Guild of America, the second since 1988, will have a devastating impact on the industry, and irrevocably change our TV habits.
Viewers are already seeing a sample of inexpensive, unscripted reality series such as "Survivor" and "The Mole" that could dominate network prime-time schedules during a strike. And for years after that.
"In 1988, we lost 9 percent of our audience following the strike," says Peter Roth, president of Warner Bros. Television, which produces "ER," "The West Wing" and others. "Now almost 12 years later, with the proliferation of choices for the viewer, a strike drives viewers away from network television at a time when we can least afford it."
Seven TV studio presidents, speaking at a Television Critics Association panel here, unanimously predicted that writers and/or actors will strike.
The WGA contract expires May 1. The Screen Actors Guild pact ends June 30. A strike by one or both is unavoidable, says Dana Walden, president of 20th Century Fox Television, which produces "Dharma & Greg," "Judging Amy," "Ally McBeal" and others: "Both positions are entrenched enough that a resolution doesnt seem quickly on the horizon."
WGA President John Wells (executive producer of "ER" and "The West Wing") and guild negotiators began meeting with studio representatives Jan. 22. They have set aside the next two weeks for substantive negotiations, instead of waiting until the final days of the contract.
Writers are preparing to strike over demands to change the entire TV industry economic model, which the WGA says will cost studios $740 million over the next three years. Writers want higher residual fees from Fox, cable, international, home video and DVD sales, on a par with what they have received from the big three networks. Writers havent been demanding their normal cut from Fox and cable since the 1980s "to protect infant corporations," says Mahern, a former "New York Undercover" writer.
"Foreign money is now about half the revenue stream on every movie on television," says Brad Wigor, a writer.
All parties are bracing for a strike. "Malcolm in the Middle" creator Linwood Boomer says he summoned his staff several months ago and told them "to start saving money."
Networks have stockpiled midseason replacement series, movies and additional episodes of series and news magazines. If writers strike May 1, networks may pull season-ending original programs from May and hold them until fall, says WB CEO Jamie Kellner.
Development of unscripted reality series also has been shoved into high gear at all networks. "Everybody has a lot more reality in development, which is not union-dependent," says CBS Television president Les Moonves.
If reality shows are huge hits, inexpensive unscripted shows could supplant scripted dramas and sitcoms from the prime-time landscape the way news magazines gobbled up time slots in the 1990s.
"The legacy of the last writers strike in my mind is "20/20" and "Dateline" on three or four nights a week," says guild member Don Reo.