Hollywood focuses on fast end to long strike

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Los Angeles Times Staff Writers

Hollywood could be back on its feet as early as Monday.

The major studios and the Writers Guild of America are putting the finishing touches on a deal that could bring an end to the costly walkout. Today the two sides are expected to finalize a three-year contract that guild leaders plan to present to thousands of writers in Los Angeles and New York on Saturday. The guild board could approve the contract Sunday and encourage writers to return to work the next day, according to people close to the negotiations.

Writers strike: An article in Section A on Friday about Hollywood writers’ possible return to work next week said the FX cable channel “decided not to pull the plug” on its series “Dirt” and “The Riches.” FX has decided not to produce the second halves of the seasons of the two shows. Each will have a season of seven rather than 13 episodes.

Studio executives and TV producers have been preparing for that day for the last two weeks, hoping to salvage the remainder of the television season by quickly revving up production to bring back some popular TV shows that have been languishing in repeats or were taken off the air.

“Everyone is motivated to get back to work as quickly as possible,” said Jonathan Littman, president of Jerry Bruckheimer Television, which produces “CSI: Crime Scene Investigation” and “Amazing Race,” among other shows, for CBS. “They want to begin producing as many original episodes as they can.”

Movies that were derailed by the strike also could lurch back, including high-profile projects such as Columbia Pictures’ “Da Vinci Code” prequel “Angels & Demons” and Warner Bros.’ “Shantaram,” starring Johnny Depp.


Films are blessed with long lead times, and last summer studio executives accelerated development and production schedules in anticipation of a strike. As a result, the movie industry was not as hard hit by the Nov. 5 work stoppage as broadcast TV.

Production shut down in December and January, after the supply of TV scripts had been depleted. That compromised the season, which officially ends May 21.

It will take four to six weeks and tens of millions of dollars to ramp up TV production in dozens of cavernous soundstages in Los Angeles, Burbank and New York, and not every prime-time series will immediately return to the air.

FOR THE RECORD: This article incorrectly states that FX “decided not to pull the plug” on its television series “Dirt” and “The Riches.” FX has decided not to produce the second halves of the upcoming seasons of the two shows: each will have seven-episode seasons rather than 13.

“It’s not just flipping a switch and having everything come right back on,” said Barry Jossen, executive vice president of production for ABC Studios. “There are a lot of factors and considerations that go into these decisions. We are trying to determine the amount of material that was finished before the strike started, the creative status of the show and the broadcast schedule needs.”

Only about 10 to 20 prime-time network programs are likely to return this spring with fresh episodes, including some of TV’s biggest hits, such as “Grey’s Anatomy” on ABC and “CSI: Crime Scene Investigation” on CBS. Some viewers might not see new episodes of their favorites until fall -- at the earliest. Shows with complex plots, large casts and complicated production elements, such as NBC’s “Heroes” and Fox’s “24,” are expected to roll over to next season.

Studio executives say they can’t justify the increased costs of ramping up production for every program halted by the strike. It would cost the studios millions of dollars extra -- an average $200,000 more an episode, according to one estimate -- to produce an abbreviated run for each series. Crews must be rehired, sets need to be rebuilt, and the costs of production would be spread over a smaller number of episodes.


Some struggling shows might not be worth saving. Shelling out millions more for marketing campaigns to try to relaunch an iffy drama could spell sudden death for such programs as NBC’s “Bionic Woman” and CBS’ “Cane,” industry executives predicted.

Television executives are vowing to use the disrupted TV season as an opportunity to do what they have talked about for years: change their decades-old rituals in an effort to contain costs in an era when audiences have declined and technologies such as the Internet and digital video recorders have changed the way people consume media.

“TV executives haven’t been sitting around thumbing their fingers during the strike; they have been giving a lot of thought to how they run their business,” Littman said. “We’re seeing some industrial Darwinism as the business changes.”

For decades, broadcast television has operated on a rigid schedule. In the fall, writers submit hundreds of scripts to the networks, which place orders for their top prospects in January and February; producers hire staffs and shoot pilot episodes from February through April in what’s typically known as pilot season.

Networks are running out of time for a full-blown development season for next fall, which could give shows such as “Cashmere Mafia” on ABC and “Reaper” on the CW a new lease on life.

Networks plan to scale back the number of pilots they order this year. In recent years, as many as 120 comedy and drama pilots were produced for ABC, NBC, CBS, Fox and the CW, all competing for the vacant slots on their prime-time schedules. Last year the networks ordered about 40 of the pilots to series.


“Broadcast networks can no longer spend tens of millions of dollars every year creating dozens of pilots that never see the light of day,” NBC Universal Chief Executive Jeff Zucker said.

Of all the pilots produced last year, only one, “Samantha Who?” on ABC, became a bona fide hit. That’s a lousy batting average in an industry that can spend $8 million for an hourlong pilot.

TV executives hope to usher in year-round development and adopt more of a cable-TV programming schedule, where the focus is on ordering fewer shows and introducing them throughout the year.

“We are looking at the long-term health and stability of the business for multiple seasons,” ABC Studios’ Jossen said.

TV comedies will be the first to go back into production. Multi-camera shows such as “Two and a Half Men” on CBS and “Back to You” on Fox are likely to resume production within the next two weeks. Single-camera comedies, such as NBC’s “The Office” and “My Name Is Earl” and CBS’ “How I Met Your Mother” also are expected to quickly shift back into gear.

The creator of “My Name Is Earl,” Greg Garcia, said he would like to get his writing staff back together Monday. Production should begin within two weeks after the strike ends, Garcia said, because the writers had left two completed scripts that were not shot and had outlined several other episodes.


“We’re kind of ahead of the game, so we can mobilize quickly,” Garcia said. “But it all remains to be seen.”

Established dramas could begin production in March.

Howard Gordon, the show runner for “24” on Fox, said he has been busy contacting his writing staff.

He said production could feasibly resume six weeks after the writers boot up their laptops. But the drama’s unique storytelling device, with each of the 24 one-hour episodes equaling a day in the life of terrorist-fighter Jack Bauer, has complicated matters.

“24” typically runs from January to May, but Fox delayed the premiere indefinitely rather than airing an incomplete season consisting of eight episodes that were on hand.

Fox has not decided when the show will return, Gordon said, but is considering three scenarios: airing 12 episodes as soon as possible and returning in the fall for the last 12, running all 24 episodes in the fall or waiting to premiere in January 2009.

There won’t be room for every show on the schedule. Some scripted programs lost their time periods to replacement reality shows, as “Chuck” did on NBC to “American Gladiators.”


At the FX cable channel, two shows felt the immediate brunt of the strike. Executives decided this week not to pull the plug on the second half of the season for “Dirt” and “The Riches.” Both shows had completed seven episodes of what would have been 13-episode seasons when the labor stoppage forced production to halt in December.

Even if the writers could go back to work next week, the network concluded they would not have enough time to complete the second halves of the seasons before May, when a slew of scripted programming is expected to return to the air, making the landscape that much more competitive. FX has not decided whether to pick either program up for a third season.

Dmitry Lipkin, creator of “The Riches,” said he was disappointed but understood his sacrifice: “My issues don’t hold a candle to what the guild is trying to achieve,” he said.

Will Scheffer, co-creator of HBO’s “Big Love,” said he and the other writers were in the midst of drafting the first six episodes of the show’s third season when the strike was called.

“The forced downtime changes your creative mandate in a way that never would have happened had there not been a strike,” Scheffer said. “In the shower, you get new ideas. We’ll revisit all the scripts. There will be some minor changes and maybe a few major changes that we didn’t expect that presented themselves.”

As for the strike itself, Scheffer declared it a success.

“It’s going to establish the writers’ position in Hollywood as being a little bit more substantial,” he said. “I think we showed there is an importance to the work, to scripts. That’s a huge aspirational thing.”


In the short term, he said:

“No one came out of the strike completely victorious. We all came out limping and bleeding.”


Times staff writers Greg Braxton, Gina Piccalo, Lynn Smith and Robert W. Welkos contributed to this report.