Reality Looms: Writers' Strike Could Change Pace of Television

By Neely Tucker
Washington Post Staff Writer
Thursday, November 1, 2007

Dear Viewers of Television:

Do not adjust your sets.

You might soon notice even more reality television emanating from your plasma boob tube. This depends on the outcome of contract negotiations between Hollywood screenwriters and Tinseltown producers and is not the fault of your local cable providers, no matter how much you hate them.

Contracts for the 12,000 members of the Writers Guild of America expired at midnight last night. Writers have a rally scheduled for tonight. Anything could happen. It's Hollywood.

If writers walk out, you might see more "unscripted" reality television, which is by and large produced by non-guild writers. In a worst-case scenario, this could result in such things as reruns of "Temptation Island" or even "Anchorwoman."

The good news is that this isn't likely, at least not yet, because even if writers do call a strike, it would be early next year before its effect would be felt on television, and more than a year before anything would change at the movie theaters.

Greg Garcia, writer and creator of NBC's hit comedy "My Name Is Earl," has two scripts waiting to be shot, "and if I shoot those two, that would take us through the end of the year" before there would be any change in the schedule.

"What scares me is that during the last strike, in 1988, people were longing for the TV shows to come back on," Garcia said in a telephone interview. "Kids today, you take TV away, they'll say, 'Big deal,' and they'll click on the computer."

And that's the pretty much the rub of the talks -- how to figure writers' residual payments from Internet downloads -- along with DVD residuals for writers, which might more accurately be phrased as "the lack of DVD residuals." Howard A. Rodman, a screenwriter for two decades, points out that writers, directors and actors pocket a combined20 cents from each DVD sale, while the manufacturer of the packaging material gets about 50 cents.

"They could double what they pay us and we'd still get less than the people who make the DVD box," says Rodman, who is also a writing professor at the University of Southern California. Failure to change the contract, Rodman wrote recently in the Los Angeles Times, would leave producers to "romp away in the money bin while we're left to hang upside down like lacquered ducks."

Not that they're bitter or anything.

The negotiations have been dragging on for months. Writers voted overwhelmingly (at above 90 percent) to authorize a strike a while back, setting a Halloween deadline. Even after the deadline passes, they might work for months without a contract, as they did when talks broke down in 2004, or they might authorize a walkout, as they did in 1988. It lasted 22 weeks. Television got so bad that people noticed.

This time around, the Alliance of Motion Picture and Television Producers, whose president is Darth Vader, promised to use the Death Star to blow up the rebel base on the far moon of Orange County if writers don't get back to their dungeons and quit whining.

Hahaha! We kid because we love!

Actually, the AMPTP president is Nick Counter, who summed up negotiations earlier this week with the statement: "We are committed to a fair, reasonable and sensible agreement. . . . [but] we will not agree to any proposals that impose unreasonable restrictions and unjustified costs. We will not ignore the challenges of today's economic realities, the shifts in audience taste and viewing habits and the unpredictability of still-evolving technology."

Got it. The AMPTP Web site helpfully notes that writers have been paid more than $1 billion in residuals over the past decade. It also notes that the number of scripted shows hit an "all-time low" this season, at about 67 percent.

Not that they're trying to say writers are ungrateful little snots lucky to have a job or anything.

The shows hardest hit, if a strike actually is called, would be nightly television gigs -- Leno, Letterman, "The Daily Show" -- which need fresh jokes five nights a week. Jon Stewart, he of the "Daily Show," declined to comment yesterday through a spokesman.

Will LaLa Land shut down? Will bad scripts actually not get filmed? Will good scripts get hacked into cliches? Will anyone be able to tell the difference?

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