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ISSUE 121 VOL 11 PUBLISHED 2/22/2008

Seasons bounce back after writers' strike

By Everett Jones
Contributing Writer

Friday, February 22, 2008

In recent months the entertainment industry has been troubled by news of the unfolding writers' strike. Touched off on Nov. 5, 2007 and just settled on Jan.12, 2008, the strike effectively shut down many talk shows and TV programs and forced film studios to rush through or postpone their feature film projects.

Perhaps the most important issue in the strike touched on the so-called "new media," referring to recently developed digital means of distribution. Examples of this include the TV episodes available for purchase on iTunes and the extensive archive of back episodes of "The Daily Show" in streaming format free of charge. The latter is a particular sticking point for writers because industry executives have contended that it is so negligible in value.

A satirical sketch by "Daily Show" writers, released on YouTube as "Not the Daily Show, by Some Writer," contrasts this claim with the entertainment industry's lawsuits against Google for copyright infringement. Writers feel, however, that even if such media have little value at the moment, they may eventually become an important or even the primary means for distributing TV shows.

Recent changes in the media world have raised other points of contention. After DVD replaced VHS as the main home viewing format writers continued to be compensated at the same rate they had first negotiated for video tapes (about 0.3%). Now that film studios regularly earn more from DVD sales than at the box office, the Writers' Guild would like to adjust the compensation given to writers accordingly.

Another disconcerting shift for writers has been the rise of reality shows, which networks prefer partly because they eliminate the need to formally hire writing staff. The Writers' Guild counters that reality programs employ their own kind of creative work in shaping footage into distinct storylines, and that such work should fall under the guild's purview.

For all of their disadvantages in facing the powerful studios and networks, the Writers Guild handled the confrontation effectively, ably drawing on the public's ready sympathy for the perceived "little guys." Celebrity actors and other Hollywood unions and writers' groups issued statements of support for the striking writers, as did several Presidential candidates; Governor Mike Huckabee spoke perhaps most frankly when he said, on a Jan. 3 appearance on the Daily Show, that, "I don't think anyone supports the producers on this one."

The writers also took advantage of their particular areas of strength by creating skits and public announcements like the "Not the Daily Show" YouTube clip mentioned above. Entertainment executives, sensing the strong emotional base of support for the writers, generally chose to claim that the strike was simply unnecessary rather than personally attacking the writers or their goals.

Talk shows hosts may have been placed in the most ambiguous situation by the strike. David Letterman was able to negotiate his own agreement with the Writer's Guild to return his show to the air complete with its writing staff in late December. Jay Leno and Conan O'Brien, who do not have the liberty to make their own contracts, eventually announced they would return without their writers and with self-penned scripts to save the jobs of their employees not on strike. In an intended gesture of goodwill toward the Writer's Guild the Daily Show came back on air as "A Daily Show with Jon Stewart;" the Colbert Show returned under its old title, but now intended to be pronounced with hard "t" sounds.

As of yet the strike's settlement has not brought about any dramatic changes, and indeed in the short run it may hurt some writers. This is particularly true of TV writers, since networks have given notice that they intend to cut back on the number of pilot episodes they order and increase their reality programming, generally seen as a safer bet.

Many writers, however, feel that they have won at least a symbolic victory, with Oscar-nominated writer-director Tony Gilroy ("Michael Clayton," the Bourne series) exulting that "we have our nose in the tent for real for the first time.

There are question marks about how it will be implemented, but there is no one who can argue that the strike was not necessary." The Guild and the companies have agreed for the moment to make a new accord on digital content, but the details have yet to be hammered out.

This is also not the end of the matter, since contracts with the Actors' and Directors' Guilds will soon expire, possibly leading to a replay of this battle. Hopefully these issues can be conclusively resolved for a situation more satisfying for both writers and viewers.

For the majority of us, of course, the strike's most direct effect was on our viewing habits. Most TV shows had to be postponed with only half their number of episodes completed. Film studios, concerned about a lack of available scripts halting film production, spent the months leading up to the strike hastily acquiring completed scripts.

Fortunately, now that the strike is over, both feature film and TV episode production should be hastily ramped up. At the moment, high profile shows such as "House," "Gray's Anatomy," "My Name is Earl," and "The Office" plan to begin broadcasting new episodes in April. Other shows, however, including "Heroes" and "Pushing Daisies," will not resume until fall.

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