Television's top writer-producers threw their collective weight behind the striking Writers Guild of America on Wednesday in a move that could accelerate the disappearance of some of the nation's most popular prime-time shows, including "Desperate Housewives," "Lost" and "The Office."
In staging a very public rally in front of Walt Disney Studios in Burbank, the 100 or so writer-producers of some of TV's highest-rated programs ratcheted up the pressure on the studios and producers who only a day before had threatened to withdraw scores of lucrative contracts with writers.
The support from the top was crucial since these writer-producers -- or "show runners" as they are called in the industry -- have the dual roles of determining a show's creative direction and answering to the studios. Without the cooperation of the show runners, networks were forced to shut down or sharply curtail production of series they had hoped to keep going for weeks or even months.
"When we're off the job, pretty much everything stops," Marc Cherry, creator and executive producer of "Desperate Housewives," said on the picket lines Wednesday. "We are the people who keep the product coming out of the factory, and they literally can't do it without us."
The networks had estimated that a backlog of finished scripts and completed episodes would keep most series on the air until early 2008. But with numerous show runners refusing to supervise nonwriting services on their programs -- duties that include overseeing casting, editing and directing -- production has stopped on several leading series, and the supply of new episodes of a number of shows will dry up around Thanksgiving.
"For years, the industry has tried to divide show runners from the rank-and-file writing staff," said Patric Verrone, president of WGA West, who joined the picket line outside Disney Studios. "And this time, we're just not buying it."
NBC's "The Office" will air only two new episodes, and new installments of ABC's "Desperate Housewives" will disappear in early December. The makers of "Grey's Anatomy" are filming their last episode (which will run in December or January), the final new episode of the CBS comedy "The Big Bang Theory" will be broadcast Monday, and the last new episode of Fox's animated series "Family Guy" may run as soon as Sunday.
The networks declined to comment on Wednesday's actions. Jeffrey L. Bewkes, who will become chief executive of Time Warner starting Jan. 1, said Wednesday that the writers strike should have "no material adverse financial impact on us this year," but that he hoped the walkout would be resolved quickly. Time Warner owns HBO, Warner Bros. and New Line movie studios, and cable-TV channels including CNN, TBS and TNT.
The three-hour WGA demonstration, at which writer-producers carried protest placards with the names of their shows scrawled across them, came right after several top studios said they were suspending payments to the staffs of numerous writer-producers.
Even though the show runners, who are WGA members, are contractually obligated to perform producing services on their programs, many choose to honor the picket lines and do everything in their power to bring production to a halt. For example, the 10 writer-producers on "The Office" set up picket lines as early as 4 a.m. to block the hit show's actors and crew from going to work. When star Steve Carell refused to cross the picket lines, "The Office" had to turn off its lights.
The writer-producers hope that by forcing the networks to fill their schedules with reruns and other programming -- which will probably result in losses of viewers and ad revenue -- they can help compel the Alliance of Motion Picture and Television Producers to return to the bargaining table.
Carlton Cuse, a writer and producer on "Lost," said that fewer than half of the 16 planned episodes of his ABC series had been filmed, meaning the fate of the air crash survivors will be unresolved when the last new episode is shown next spring.
"It will be a little like buying a Harry Potter book and having someone rip it out of your hands about halfway through," Cuse said.
"What the companies probably underestimated is just how emotional and important this issue is not only to writers but all creative people," John Wells, an executive producer on "ER," said outside Disney Studios. Wells estimated that the last new episode of his hospital drama would be broadcast in January. Coupled with the loss of "The Office" and other NBC shows, Wells said, "It's going to be very painful for NBC in the fourth quarter."
Among the key issues dividing the WGA and the producers alliance are payments for new and repeat showings of scripted shows on the Internet and mobile electronic devices.
"We have had 7 million iTunes downloads," said Greg Daniels, the show runner for "The Office." "And we get the biggest traffic on NBC.com. As this business grows, they are going to make more money than they ever made on TV. There's a huge pot of money out there."
Negotiations between the WGA and the producers alliance broke off late Sunday, and no new talks are scheduled. The last WGA strike, in 1988, lasted 22 weeks and cost Hollywood an estimated $500 million.
"Showrunner Day" wasn't planned long in advance, although many writer-producers were wearing neatly embroidered "United Showrunners" baseball caps. The coalition began forming Saturday when show runners on the negotiating committee called a meeting, at which they decided they should not work at all.
"What prompted this is that in the '88 strike show runners were disenfranchised because they were almost seen as management, and that was a mistake," said Kari Lizer, the creator and show runner of CBS' "The New Adventures of Old Christine." "By not doing our [producing duties], we realized we could potentially shorten the strike."
Initially, some show runners intended to fulfill their contracts by performing the producing part of their jobs, but that plan was quickly abandoned.
"It just really became clear that we depend on them to distribute our work and work very collaboratively, but they need us too," said "Law & Order: SVU Special Victims Unit" writer-producer Neal Baer, who is also on the negotiating committee for the 10,000 WGA members covered under the guild contract.
"We have a pretty good track record of making high-quality television, and it's not going to be so easy to find other people to do what we do."
The public display by the show runners was not limited to Burbank. In New York, writer-producer Tom Fontana said he had stopped work on his new show, "The Philanthropist," which was supposed to debut on NBC in January. Fontana had written the first script and outlined stories for six more episodes when the strike was called Sunday night. "I canceled everything," he said.
The show runners who rallied outside Disney on Wednesday were among Hollywood's wealthiest employees and could better afford a strike than many rank-and-file screenwriters. But they were still conflicted about letting their shows essentially die from neglect.
"This is heart-wrenching," said Bill Prady, executive producer on "Big Bang Theory." "I've worked 22 years and I finally with Chuck Lorre have my very first show, and we are at our most vulnerable, just as audiences are starting to discover us."
"Pushing Daisies" show runner Bryan Fuller was on top of the world when the TV season began. His ABC series about a pie maker who can bring people back to life was a critical hit and building a loyal following. With Fuller on the picket lines, his cast and crew were making the final new episode without him.
"As a writer and a creative person, I really do feel like each of these projects is my child that I'm trusting for people to take care of," Fuller said. "Now, I feel like my child is in school but there's a restraining order that I can't come within 500 feet of it. I have to look at the bigger picture and say, 'How much can I do without betraying the guild and how much can't I do without betraying my show?' It's a horrible position to be put in."
Times staff writers Lynn Smith, Matea Gold, Greg Braxton and Thomas Mulligan contributed to this report.