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A writers’ strike nobody wants

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How will we get to sleep without David Letterman’s “Top 10 List”? Or Stephen Colbert’s “The Word”? What if we’re left hanging with story interruptus on “Heroes” or “Lost”? Is there life after “ ‘Til Death?”

In short: Is a writers’ strike really inevitable?

OK, so maybe mandatory withdrawal from a few shows would not be an entirely negative experience. But still.

In case you’ve ignored the sounds of rising panic rippling over Hollywood lately: The networks and studios have been negotiating a new contract with the union representing TV and film writers, and . . . let’s just say it’s not going well.

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If it happens, a strike could wind up being even more damaging than the infamous 1988 writers’ walkout, which academics and other observers have generally characterized as a lose-lose. Back then, thousands of people were thrown out of work for more than five months, and some estimates peg the entertainment industry’s strike-related losses as high as $500 million.

The TV business has changed a lot since then, in ways that may make a strike even less palatable now. More about that in a minute.

In any case, the Writers Guild of America isn’t finding much common ground with the Alliance of Motion Picture and Television Producers, with the sides far apart on issues like splitting revenues from new media and whether reality shows should be unionized. At the conclusion of talks Thursday, the AMPTP fired off a statement ripping the guild for raising what it said were “a number of red herrings and irrelevant financial information.” The guild has publicly dissed the producers’ group as “not serious” (both sides are due back at the bargaining table Tuesday). If members give the OK, the guild could call a strike as early as Nov. 1.

That is why in the last couple of weeks, the TV business -- networks, studios, writers, agents, managers and everyone else -- has been thrown into a major tizzy. What seemed hypothetical just a month ago has suddenly become uncomfortably real.

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Many economists are pointing to a U.S. class gap of 1920s-size proportions, so it’s not that surprising that labor unrest is also making a comeback. When Chrysler workers struck for six hours last week, some wags dubbed it a “Hollywood strike” -- that is, just for show.

Plenty of TV veterans are wishing the writers’ negotiation could find a way to go Hollywood too (“Can’t they avert this?” one talent manager pleaded with me last week). This mess may take a lot more time to sort out than it takes to watch “The Starter Wife.”

Studios are cramming to shoot as many episodes of existing series as they can before any work stoppage. Crews on NBC’s “Heroes” and ABC’s “Ugly Betty” have been hustling like crazy, with multiple units racing to shoot two episodes simultaneously last week. “The studio wants to get as much stuff shot as we can by Nov. 1, but we can only write the show as fast as we can write it,” Carlton Cuse and Damon Lindelof, executive producers of “Lost,” wrote me in an e-mail. (Cuse sits on the guild’s 17-member negotiating committee.)

Some new shows with middling-to-poor ratings -- including NBC’s “Journeyman” and CBS’ “Cane” -- have received extra script orders.

Network officials aren’t talking for the record about their strike plans. But almost everyone agrees that once the supply of new scripted episodes gets burned off -- say, by mid-January -- network prime time schedules would quickly devolve to the two “Rs": reality and repeats. Reality shows generally don’t use guild talent, so existing series like “American Idol” and “Dancing With the Stars” would be strike-proof.

There might suddenly be more prime time sports too. And after disappearing almost entirely from network schedules, newsmagazines might come roaring back in style.

Perhaps most important, if the strike lasted for longer than a few weeks, the pilot season -- when networks would start the process of producing new dramas and comedies for the 2008-09 season -- would be thrown into disarray. The networks are already hedging bets by giving some early pilot orders.

In fact, the 1988 strike already offers clues about what we might expect this time around. Back then, newsmagazines like “48 Hours” caught on while scripted shows went dark. Some series, most notably “Moonlighting,” never recovered from the disruption. And some folks made a valiant attempt to carry on: The host of NBC’s “Late Night With David Letterman” gamely tried to write his own “Top 10 List” for a while.

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But the past may not be a reliable guide this time around. The TV business bears little resemblance to its old self of 1988. At that time, networks and studios couldn’t be owned by the same company. Broadcasters still had a commanding lead over cable. And beyond future Nobel laureate Al Gore, few people had even heard of the Internet -- which, by the way, first opened to commercial interests that year. No one was using iPods or DVDs or DVRs. “There’s much more competition for the audience’s attention than there was 20 years ago,” said Tim Spengler of New York ad firm Initiative.

Simply put, this is a bad time to be testing the loyalty of prime time TV viewers. That may be why everyone’s talking about the strike with a kind of resigned dread. Like World War I, it’s a conflict no one wants but everyone seems powerless to stop.

Writers are fed up because they think the studios have been flaying them alive in every negotiation since ’88, even finding a way to stiff scribes over DVD revenues. But writers are also nervous about dropping the big one. Who knows what might happen? “My greatest concern is that by striking, we’re playing our last and final card . . . against a more heavily armed opponent,” Craig Mazin, a screenwriter who co-writes “The Artful Writer” blog, e-mailed me.

Some shows could be seriously damaged. Last year, ABC gave “Lost” a three-month hiatus in the middle of the season -- and the layoff was promptly blamed for the show’s subsequent ratings woes. What would a strike do to the serialized thriller’s fan base?

Obviously, anything that threatens scripted series isn’t good for TV writers. The networks and studios know this, and that’s why their reps are eagerly feeding reporters stats about how many network time slots have been lost to reality shows over the last few seasons. Message: Stop moaning about your compensation, you laptop-toting, latte-sipping ingrates, or you’ll all end up writing intros for Ryan Seacrest.

If that sounds like overkill, well, the networks are running scared. Executives would likely have to renegotiate ad rates and offer extensive make-goods if their prime time lineups are hit by a strike, Spengler says.

Can’t they avert this? Well, sure. It’s possible that this will turn into a repeat of 2001, when the entire town braced for a writers’ strike that never came. But even that near miss had serious consequences: The stockpiling meant to protect studios and networks from a strike left them instead with a glut of product, leaving many workers unemployed well into 2002.

“To me, a strike means a loss,” said Mazin, summing up the ambivalence of many. “On the other hand, some things are worth striking over, even if it means shooting yourself in the foot.”

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scott.collins@latimes.com


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