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Why the Strike Will Be a Long One

Hot issues and harsh words impede return to the bargaining table 11/09/2007 07:00:00 PM Eastern

Don't expect the strike to end anytime soon. That is the word from the Alliance of Motion Picture and Television Producers, the Writers Guild of America and just about every industry observer after Week One of the work stoppage.

While both sides say they were making progress before talks broke down late at night on Sunday, Nov. 4, it now seems no one is expecting negotiations to begin again anytime soon. “In 1988 they were out for five months, and we anticipate they will be out at least that long,” says AMPTP president Nick Counter.

“We are prepared to do whatever is necessary to get a contract,” says WGA West President Patric Verrone. “If that includes picketing 14 studio sites a day plus an unknown number of location shoots every day, we will do that as long as we can.”

The sense of pessimism may be the only thing the sides are agreeing on right now, including which party actually walked out of the talks the Sunday night before the strike began. The WGA claims the AMPTP walked out of talks at 9:30 p.m. PT. The AMPTP says it did so because a negotiating committee member jumped on the Internet and saw that the WGA East had gone on strike as of midnight Eastern and didn't want to talk if the WGA wouldn't “stop the clock.”

“You don't bargain with a gun to your head,” claims Counter.

From the tone of both sides, détente won't come soon. “I don't see anything happening until the first of the year,” says Counter of the sides returning to the bargaining table. Many WGA members agree.

Both sides say the best way to get back to the table officially may be for showrunners and studio or network executives to quietly exchange ideas and proposals through back channels.

“There is no trust right now between the sides,” says Lost executive producer Damon Lindelof. “I feel the best work to be done between now and January, if that is when we start talks again, is to have ongoing dialogue. But I don't think we will be back at the table anytime soon.”

“You have to know a deal is [possible] before we go back to the table,” Counter agrees.

Outside of the talks going forward through these back-channel negotiations, there are other ways the situation could progress. One twist could come if the AMPTP and the Directors Guild of America begin talking and get a new deal done. Their contract is up June 30, but industry sources say the AMPTP may consider the DGA easier to deal with than the WGA, and a deal with the DGA would pressure the WGA into following suit.

Another way would be through the help of a third-party mediator. In addition to the federal mediator already on hand, a big name from the political world or elsewhere could try to mediate. But Counter wants no part of that.

“I know because it's Hollywood everyone wants a show, but this should be handled by the parties,” he says.

The WGA and the AMPTP weren't talking to each other last week, but each was standing strong on its side of the fight, with major issues still including compensation for streaming video and DVD sales.

In the Breach

In the first week of picketing, many showrunners, including Marc Cherry of Desperate Housewives and Greg Daniels of The Office, decided not to continue in their other non-writing roles on their shows, with many shows in essence shutting down a bit earlier than expected.

“That's up to them; they may be in breach of contract, by the way, so I hope they have gotten legal advice on that,” Counter warns.

Many studios and networks were beginning to scale back on costs by suspending deals for writers. “I don't know why they would continue to pay me,” says Daniels after his show was shut down last week.

And as the strike settles in for the long standoff many expect, both sides and the entire television industry continue to be frustrated knowing how progress was finally being made just before the situation blew up a week ago.

“We made more progress in 11 hours on Sunday than we did in the last three and a half months,” says the WGA's Verrone.

“I've only been doing this since 1982, so what do I know, but we should have stayed at the table Sunday night,” says Counter.

But the next round will most likely have to start with a few quiet calls between people who have worked together for a long time, but are sitting on opposite ends of a fight.

“On a day-to-day basis, they are people I work with all the time and have a really good relationship with,” says Neal Baer, the executive producer of Law & Order: SVU, who also sits on the WGA negotiating committee. “So we know each other, but we have to talk; I'm sure there will be backchanneling.”

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