WHEN the dust settles on the strike of '07 -- now 19 days old -- we'll probably see it as a Hollywood turning point. No, not in the history of the Writers Guild of America, or of the studios and networks. It's a critical and historic shift for TV show runners.
The guild and the studios return to the bargaining table Monday, and there's probably a long road of negotiation still ahead, with the strong likelihood that, as in past writers' work stoppages, no clear "winner" will emerge. But when assessing the eventual outcome, look at the show runners, the executive producers who are in charge of television series. These are the writer-producers who are emerging as the dominant force of a fragmented and slowly recombining TV industry. It's a business that's tilting -- or maybe more accurately, groping -- its way toward the Internet and other new media. And show runners are at the center of it all.
Show runners are "hyphenates," a curious hybrid of starry-eyed artists and tough-as-nails operational managers. They're not just writers; they're not just producers. They hire and fire writers and crew members, develop story lines, write scripts, cast actors, mind budgets and run interference with studio and network bosses. It's one of the most unusual and demanding, right-brain/left-brain job descriptions in the entertainment world.
Sure, show runners have always had power that often extends well beyond their own shows. That's especially true of the industrious few who at one time or another have had multiple series on the air simultaneously: David E. Kelley, Dick Wolf, John Wells, J.J. Abrams, Shonda Rhimes, Shawn Ryan, Seth MacFarlane and others.
But the strike is proving that show runners are beginning to call the industry's shots in ways that other traditional power sources -- trade unions, studio bosses, network executives, agents -- either cannot or will not do. Indeed, The Times and other outlets have reported that TV writer-producers, along with agents and a few influential screenwriters, played a crucial back-channel role in pressuring the studios and the guild to come back to the bargaining table.
During the early days of the strike, show runners separated into two camps, so-called hawks and moderates. The hawks are sticking by the guild's ultra-strict, nine-page list of strike rules, which forbid writers from even entering the gates of a struck company. The hawk position has found an emissary in Ryan, of "The Shield" and "The Unit," who is a member of the guild's negotiating committee. In a militant, widely circulated Nov. 5 e-mail, he said he would "do nothing" on his shows throughout the strike.
"I obviously will not write on my shows," Ryan wrote. "But I also will not edit, I will not cast, I will not look at location photos, I will not get on the phone with the network and studio, I will not prep directors, I will not review mixes."
The moderates have a prominent voice in Carlton Cuse, executive producer of "Lost" and also on the guild's negotiating committee, who said that to protect his series he would do postproduction work on eight episodes already filmed before the strike (although this may be moot, as production has been shuttered indefinitely on this season's eight remaining episodes and ABC may not want to run a partial helping of such a heavily serialized show).
"I strongly believe that each show runner should make a decision based on his own conscience and circumstance," Cuse was quoted saying in the Wall Street Journal. (Through representatives, Cuse declined to comment for this column, citing a desire not to short-circuit next week's resumption of talks, and Ryan did not return phone calls.)
It's tempting to view the existence of the two camps as a sign of writers' disunity. It's obvious that the studios could try to exploit any disagreement among the writers. The very existence of a moderate camp, in fact, could be construed as a sign of weakness. After all, many nonwriters are bitterly griping that the strike is costing them jobs, and it's possible that more than a few show runners have been spooked by the studios' "you better live by your contract" letters.
On the other hand, show runners have more power than they did in past strikes. That's because TV, like every other media business (yes, including newspapers), is in the midst of truly earth-shattering change.
As the industry hunkered down for the strike, many observers longed out loud for a figure like the late Lew Wasserman, the agent-turned-mogul -- "The Last Mogul," according to the title of author Dennis McDougal's critical biography -- who often played a central role in negotiating labor unrest. But a palace-chamber virtuoso of Wasserman's bent couldn't govern Hollywood today. Too many competing interests, too many distribution methods, too much uncertainty.
That reality has the studio bosses freaked. All of them see what's happened to the music business over the last few years, and it scares the bejesus out of them. CD sales are plummeting, piracy is rampant, fans gripe that the music stinks, artists like Madonna are going off and signing giant deals with promoters, Steve Jobs keeps telling the record labels how they don't get it. The whole thing is a nightmare. With many analysts predicting some form of mass-market "on demand" model coming soon, the TV business could be similarly up for grabs.
As for the guild, the pickets carrying funny signs and yukking it up with A-list stars make for great news video and copy. But everybody knows that the WGA -- or any other union -- doesn't decide what goes down in Hollywood and never did. The guilds are merely the tools that talent and management use to fine-tune and formalize their endlessly shifting relationship. Hollywood is the ultimate star system; it was ever thus.
Which leaves us with the show runners, the one force in town whose power is unquestionably on the ascendancy. Why is that? Because show runners make -- and often create -- the shows, and now more than ever, shows are the only things that matter. In the "long tail" entertainment economy, viewers don't watch networks. They don't even care about networks. They watch shows. And they don't care how they get them.
That takes a lot of power from the networks. And it hands it to show runners. True, the studios still own the shows, and always will. But in the new economy, show runners have extra leverage -- perhaps more than even they realize.
Ninety percent of guild members may have authorized this strike, but you can be sure it would never have started without at least a wink and nudge from the few dozen show runners who matter.
And you know what? It's a safe bet it won't end until the show runners sign off on a deal.