Writers Guild Votes to End Strike

Patrick Varrone, left, president of Writers Guild of America-West, with writer Steven Paul Leiva, after announcing the end of the 14-week strike.
Patrick Varrone, left, president of Writers Guild of America-West, with writer Steven Paul Leiva, after announcing the end of the 14-week strike. (By Kevork Djansezian -- Associated Press)
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By Paul Farhi
Washington Post Staff Writer
Wednesday, February 13, 2008

Members of the Writers Guild of America officially called off their strike last night, voting overwhelmingly to end their 14-week walkout and return to work, beginning today, to restart the disrupted television season.

About 3,800 of the WGA's 10,500 members in New York and Los Angeles voted on the back-to-work order. Of those, 3,492, or 91.9 percent, were in favor of lifting the strike order that had kept them on picket lines since Nov. 5. The writers will vote later this month to ratify a proposed three-year contract with Hollywood's studios and the TV networks -- a step now considered a formality.

The major questions now are how fast TV-series production can resume, and how much long-term damage the strike has caused to viewing habits.

Talk shows such as "The Daily Show With Jon Stewart" and "The Tonight Show With Jay Leno" could be back on the air with their full creative teams within days. NBC's "Saturday Night Live," whose last original episode was in October, said it was planning to return Feb. 23.

New episodes of sitcoms most likely won't be on the air until mid-March. Dramas, which are much more complicated to produce, aren't expected to reappear until April, though it's possible the networks will save their limited number of new episodes for the May sweeps period. Some popular programs, such as NBC's "Heroes," won't reappear until fall. Low-rated series won't be produced anew this season.

A more complicated issue is how many viewers stopped watching network television during the strike and how many will return once regular programming resumes.

"I think everybody is very happy we're going to get back to work and we're going to put this community back together again," Leslie Moonves, the chief executive of CBS Corp., said in an interview yesterday.

Moonves said the strike may spur the networks to add more reality programming, which is less expensive to produce than traditional scripted programs and is outside the WGA's jurisdiction. But he added that it was "way too early" to assess the lasting effects from the strike. "I still think network TV is the biggest game in town," he said. "Ultimately, I don't think there will be long-lasting consequences for this business."

According to Nielsen Media Research, the broadcast networks attracted an average of 48 percent of the total audience during the strike-plagued month of January, equaling their share for the entire season. However, January is typically a strong month for network viewing, so the average performance may indicate some viewer defections.

The analysis is complicated by the fact that network viewing levels have been declining for years, for reasons unrelated to the strike, and probably would have declined even without the walkout.

The writers' agreement with the studios and networks will compensate writers when movies and TV shows are carried over the Internet and shown in other new media. Digital-media fees were the central issue in the strike.

"It's not the perfect deal of everyone's dreams, but it's a good deal, and one we can build on," said Michael Winship, the president of the WGA's Eastern branch, in an interview yesterday.

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