The war over words in Hollywood

PAMELA YOUNG August 8 1988

The war over words in Hollywood

PAMELA YOUNG August 8 1988

The war over words in Hollywood


Among the sure signs of summer’s end are children returning to school, trees turning crimson— and the TV networks promoting their new programs. But this year, students will be planning their Halloween costumes and the leaves will be piling up on the ground before the new television season gets under way. The reason is the strike by the 9,000-member Writers Guild of America (WGA), which began on March 7. The strike, provoked primarily by a dispute over fees for scriptwriters, brought several shows in the 1987-1988 season to a premature end. That resulted in such unintended cliff-hangers as yet another “Who Shot J. R.?” mystery (the first occurred in 1979-1980) on the CBS evening soap Dallas, a question that was to have been answered before the end of the season. And although the launching of the new fall programs had not been expected until after the completion on Oct. 2 of the 1988 Summer Olympic Games in Seoul, South Korea, the strike now has delayed the launch until at least the end of October. When the networks finally do parade their new shows, viewers will witness one of the oddest lineups in recent memory.

At week’s end, representatives of the WGA and the Alliance of Motion Picture and Television Producers sought to settle their differences in renewed negotiations. But even an imminent return to work by the writers would be too late to permit the production of many fall programs on schedule. As well, the dispute has caused disarray among the 230,000 Californians who work directly or indirectly for the television and film industries. Directors, actors, technicians and suppliers are out of work. The featurefilm business is also beginning to suffer from an absence of scripts. And Canadian production companies that provide material for the U.S. market are feeling the pinch.

The U.S. networks are already in a critical position. For several years, the Big Three—NBC, ABC and CBS—have been steadily losing viewers to pay TV and cable. Altogether, the Big Three’s prime-time audiences were down by an estimated nine per cent last year alone. Said Brandon Tartikoff, president of NBC Entertainment: “Our survival is at

stake.” Indeed, the absence of favorite shows in the new season threatens to alienate even more of the networks’ most dedicated couch potatoes. Many popular series, including NBC’s L.A. Law and Cheers, are indefinitely on hold because they are without scripts. ABC’s

Moonlighting, the romantic comedy, is faced with a biological anomaly. The show was forced to end prematurely last season for lack of scripts. When it returns leading character Maddie (Cybill Shepherd) will have been pregnant for at least a year and a half.

Meanwhile, the big networks are resorting to stopgap measures to fill their schedules, including movies, reruns, expanded news programming and newly filmed versions of long-forgotten scripts. NBC, which occupies the top ratings spot among the three networks, is in the best shape. Before the strike began, the network had obtained the rights for two big audience draws: the Olympics and baseball’s World Series, which begins in midOctober. NBC may be filling in the blanks with new shows that do not require narrative scripts. Among those are True to Life, a variant on the old NBC series This Is Your Life, and a variety show featuring comedian John Byner. It is also filming new versions of old scripts from the ABC youth adventure series The Hardy Boys, which aired originally between

1977 and 1979. Tartikoff says that he is also considering acquiring old scripts from Canada and Britain. Professional screenwriters in those countries cannot accept new work from the U.S. networks because their unions are affiliated with the WGA. Said Tartikoff: “Come hell or high water, we will have original programming this fall.”

For its part, ABC has recycled 13 episodes from the adventure series Mission Impossible, which ran on CBS from 1966 to 1973. The programs are currently in production in Australia. ABC’s ace in the hole is the 18-hour mini-series War and Remembrance, successor to the popular 1983 Second World War saga, The Winds of War. The network had planned to save it for screening in February, 1989, a crucial ratings period, but it will air this November instead. Lastplace CBS had plans designed to pick up ratings points by doubling its half-hour comedies from four to eight a week with new shows starring such proven talents as Dick Van Dyke and Mary Tyler Moore. While those projects are on hold, it has purchased a new half-hour English-American comedy series called Jake ’s Journey, which stars Monty Python’s Graham Chapman. CBS has also turned to Australian talent by commissioning Dolphin Bay, a new series about a U.S. biologist who moves to Australia with his children. The network has also announced plans for two hour-long programs featuring highlights from its prime-time show 60 Minutes.

For the Canadian networks, which are all to some extent dependent on U.S. programming, these are times of uncertainty. But network executives insist that they are not worried. Philip Wedge, vice-president of programming at the CTV Television Network, will be looking at the replacement series ordered by the U.S. networks when they become available. He concedes that there will be “a lot of last-minute juggling,” but adds that the strike will affect CTV “minimally.” Ivan Fecan, head of drama at the CBC, says that he has been doing “a little judicious buying in case the strike continues.” He argues that the strike could be a blessing for domestically produced TV. Said Fecan: “Every Canadian show with original episodes stands to benefit in going head-to-head with U.S. repeats.”

The major stumbling block in the writers’ dispute involved “residuals”— the fees that writers receive when their shows are sold into syndication, and which they continued to receive during the strike. The three-year contract that expired on Feb. 29 provided guild writers with $22,200 or. more for a one-hour script, and $14,400 for the first network rerun. A show in syndication in North America provided its writers with $19,200 for the first six reruns of an episode and then a dwindling percentage of their initial payment with each additional airing. If the show is sold in a foreign market, the writers receive a onetime payment of $4,800. The producers contend that those arrangements are too costly, and their demands for a rollback in fees helped to provoke the strike.

Before the latest round of negotiations, dissension arose among the strikers. The WGA rejected the producers’ previous offer by a 3 to 1 margin in a July 13 vote, but some members of a lobby group called the Writers’ Coalition submitted a complaint to the Na-

tional Labor Relations Board seeking to invalidate or make unconstitutional the union rules that prevented them from returning to work during the strike. Former Montrealer Lionel Chetwynd, who wrote the screenplay for The Apprenticeship of Duddy Kravitz, heads the coalition. Said Chetwynd last week: “If the strike does not end this week, it could go on forever.” Others, Hill Street Blues and L.A. Law co-creator Steven Bochco among them, have publicly called for an end to the dispute.

But most writers supported the WGA’s bargaining position. One of them is Californian Paul Ehrmann, 41, who has written episodes of Cagney & Lacey and Hunter. The divorced father, who says that his annual earnings averaged $95,000 over the past five years, adds that he is now behind in his child support payments and his rent because his income during the strike was reduced to residuals and income from other kinds of work. But he remained committed to the strike. Said Ehrmann: “The principle of being continually compensated when your work makes money makes sense. My politics have not changed because my bank balance has changed.”

As the strike persisted, Canadian production companies began to suffer. Five U.S. series that are filmed in Vancouver, including the adventure dramas MacGyver and 21 Jump Street, are now on hold. A similar climate prevails in Ontario. Said Jonathan Barker, acting chief executive officer of the Ontario Film Development Corp.: “Looking ahead to August and September, there is basically no U.S. production slated to go ahead.” Last year, film and TV producers from outside the country spent

$100 million in Ontario. But because of the strike—and the strengthening of the Canadian dollar—Barker expects the 1988 total to drop to $60 million.

Another consequence of the strike will not be widely apparent for a few years. Martin Grove, a columnist for the trade newspaper The Hollywood Reporter, said that development of theatrical films “has ground to a halt.” Grove added that preparing a film for production can take two years, and he predicted that film projects will be in short supply in a few years because of the current strike.

Those realities mean that the writers’ dispute is certain to have a lasting effect on the entertainment industry. Three years ago, a screenwriter figured out a tidy way to reintroduce a character who had been killed off on Dallas. According to the first episode of the new season, the entire preceding season had been a dream in another character’s mind. On television, anything can happen, but real-life dramas like the writers’ strike are far more difficult to resolve.

-PAMELA YOUNG with ANNE GREGOR in Los Angeles and BRIAN D. JOHNSON in Toronto