Reaching agreement

At press time, screenwriters and studios are close to new contract

As CBS executives celebrated the results of Survivor's finale Friday afternoon in Los Angeles, negotiators on the second floor of the Writers Guild of America headquarters across the street continued to put the final touches on a new contract between Hollywood's screenwriters and studios.

The deadline for WGA's three-year contract with the Alliance of Motion Picture & Television Producers (AMPTP) came and went last Wednesday, but, at press time, a new agreement seemed close at hand.

Sources close to the talks say the two sides are completing a three-year pact that will likely raise the WGA's minimum payment by 3.5%, increase writers' share of residual pies and also eliminate Fox Broadcasting Co.'s discounted pay scale for writers.

Most important, the new contract will avert the first potentially crippling strike facing Hollywood this summer.

Once the WGA pact with the studios and the networks is formalized and approved by members, the Screen Actors Guild goes on the clock. The actors union has until June 30 to reach a new accord with the AMPTP. Talks between SAG and the studios had been tentatively set to begin in Los Angeles this week but will probably be put on hold at least another week.

Can the 100,000-plus actors union learn anything from what is transpiring between the WGA and AMPTP? "There will be a lesson to come out of it, but, until we see what comes out of it, it's hard to know what lesson that will be," says SAG's Greg Krizman.

Network and Madison Ave. executives were optimistic late last week, hoping that SAG and the studios would follow the writers' lead and settle without a work stoppage. The major networks head to New York next week to unveil their fall lineups to advertisers.

"We don't think there is going to be a strike," says NBC Entertainment President Jeff Zucker. "We will be prepared just in case, but we are very hopeful this is all going to be settled."

Advertisers and media buyers, who have to decide where to spend their millions within the next several weeks, say the settlement between the WGA and studios is a welcome relief.

"It would be great news if they settle," says media buyer Paul Schulman. "Most of my clients are very program-sensitive. They want to know what shows they are going to be in when they make their upfront buys. They want to know programming; they want to know dates. If we had a strike, you wouldn't know what was going to be on.

"There are still some worries about the actors settling," he adds, "but the fact that the writers settled is a good sign. Hopefully, the same type of negotiating strategies can be used, and the same settlements can be arrived at, and we will not have any strike at all. It will be great for the Hollywood community, which would have been crippled, and I think it's terrific for the buyers. Now all we have to worry about is a slow economy."