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How I Almost Had to Picket My Own Company

Editor’s note: A prolific writer and producer responsible for such shows as “The Rockford Files” and “The A-Team,” Stephen J. Cannell ran his own company and was producing several prime-time series--including “Wiseguy,” “Hunter” and “Sonny Spoon"--when the last Writers Guild of America strike occurred in 1988. In the last five years, he has become a novelist, writing a half-dozen books, his latest being “The Tin Collectors.”

Calendar asked Cannell to reminisce about the 1988 strike and the two others he experienced. It’s worth noting that Cannell also has a dog in the current fight, having just completed a pilot script for NBC.

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I always viewed myself as a bit of an anomaly. I was a pure writer and am a pure writer first and foremost. I was also running my own production company, so I found myself with a foot in each boat.

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My sympathies were with the writers, and my fiscal problems were as a producer, because I was covering all my own deficits on production, and to shut my company down and carry 1,500 people on a payroll for months and months was a crippling idea for an individual.

When the writers went out on strike in 1988, I was struggling with this, and I didn’t want to pink-slip people. So I get a call from my picket captain, and the guy goes, “Well, we’ve got your picket assignment for you.” I said let me have it. And he says, “I don’t know how to put this, but you’re picketing your studio.”

I said, “Are you kidding me?” I told him I certainly didn’t mind picketing, but you can’t make me picket my own company, because I’d feel like a complete fool. In the back of my mind, I had the feeling there was going to be a news camera there when I showed up. Finally, they relented and let me go picket at CBS. It was the beginning of what I considered a pretty frustrating strike.

One of the things I saw happening in all the strikes I’ve witnessed is that the leadership of the guild pumps the writers up to get them angry enough to go out, and in order to do this there’s a lot of invective that’s hurled around about how the studios are stealing from writers and making all the dough while we’re being hammered.

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That gets the temperature up, and then the guild is kind of stuck with that rhetoric. As the negotiation proceeds, they really can’t accept what would be a compromise proposal in the face of what they’ve just said to their membership to get them to go out on strike, so now the lines begin to harden.

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As the strike begins to mature, in order to keep the writers out when offers are made by the studios, this invective continues. Then what happens is people start to get into financial difficulty, and as they do, they start to come to meetings and there’s more and more grumbling. Then the guilds always start to splinter, and you have guys talking about financial core memberships and getting back to work.

That’s what then slowly turns the guild toward compromise positions. In view of having a large percentage of employable writers breaking off from the guild in financial core memberships, they start to negotiate with more dedication. A deal is finally struck that basically pleases nobody, and the strike is over.

They all go that same direction, and I understand exactly why it’s that way. It’s a natural byproduct of union negotiations. It’s really too bad we can’t open with our best offers on both sides of the table and say, “Look, we all have a lot to lose here, let’s not screw around, and let’s deal with the realities of where we’re really going to end up.” That’s sort of my view of how these show-business labor negotiations tend to go.

The other thing you have to realize is that the reason companies like mine don’t exist anymore is courtesy of the Federal Communications Commission and the U.S. government. We were saying any entrepreneurial spirit ought to be able to compete in any field of business as long as he’s got the guts to play, and that’s not true any longer in our industry, because they gave the networks--the gatekeepers of what gets on the I already know writers who are saying if there’s a strike, they might have to sell their houses. What a horrible thing for a family to contemplate.

air--the right to own and distribute their own programming, leaving people like me in a really difficult position.

That’s the main reason we have so few private companies anymore, which I think is too bad. And it does change the equation, because you’re dealing with companies who have lots of divisions, and their music division isn’t going to be affected by a strike, nor are their entertainment parks. So we’re looking at companies that may be able to tighten their belts and last a lot longer.

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The writers themselves start to bleed after about three or four months, and it starts to get ugly. I already know writers who are saying if there’s a strike, they might have to sell their houses. What a horrible thing for a family to contemplate.

At the same time, putting on my WGA hat, if writers don’t strike and continue to negotiate for better conditions inside the financial structures of our business, we’re going to be shut out.


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