Hollywood Hunkers Down for Strike

Writers Ready to Walk Out for First Time in Decades Amid Dispute Over Digital

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"You may have noticed tonight that I was using a lot of words," Jon Stewart said as he closed out a taping of last Thursday's broadcast of "The Daily Show." "That's because there may or may not be a writers strike next week, so I was trying to get in as many words as I could before something like that happened."
First victim? Jon Stewart warned 'Daily Show' fans about possible strike.
First victim? Jon Stewart warned 'Daily Show' fans about possible strike.

As with all great comics, his timing was perfect.

Three-thousand miles west of Mr. Stewart's desk, as of 8:11 p.m. Pacific Daylight Time, the Writers Guild of America was all but on strike. Thousands of Hollywood's TV and film writers had converged just 90 minutes earlier at the Los Angeles Convention Center, where guild leaders announced that a Friday-afternoon e-mail would signal when the work stoppage would officially begin. At press time, all signs pointed to a strike starting today -- absent an unlikely last-minute deal.

New medium, same formula?
The town's producers on Wednesday refused to continue to bargain unless the writers agreed to extend a decades-old home-video-residuals payment formula (one that's lopsided in favor of the studios) to internet downloads.

Even the usually relaxed Mr. Stewart seemed to acknowledge through near-gritted teeth that the new medium in which his writers are seeking better pay is the same one that will sustain interest in his program during a work stoppage.

"So we won't be here, but while we're not here, you can check out all of our content on our new website, TheDailyShow.com. Every 'Daily Show' since I got here is on it -- free," he said, adding ruefully, "Except the advertising. So support our advertisers."

Media buyers describe a scenario in which their clients would muddle through a short-term work stoppage. Topical programs such as "The Tonight Show" and "The Late Show With David Letterman" would have to fumble through absent monologues and a lack of comedic sketches but could still make do. Besides, advertisers have already committed dollars for the fourth quarter, buyers said.

Shutting down soaps
Two to three weeks later, daytime programming would begin to feel some pain. Soap operas aren't known for stockpiling lots of scripts; most would have to shutter.

"Then you're going to have to say, 'How do I rejigger my schedule to make sure I'm still reaching women?'" said Jason Maltby, president and co-executive director-national broadcast at WPP Group's MindShare.

The first tacit expression of advertiser displeasure probably would come in early January, when options come due for considering ad placement in programming that airs during the second quarter. Viewers would start to see more newsmagazines, reality shows and, no doubt, repeats. If the TV season doesn't have highly anticipated season finales, audiences will go elsewhere and advertisers will follow. "There will be an adverse impact. Advertisers will have to adjust based on where the audience goes, and revenue will be lost," Mr. Maltby said.

Still, Leslie Moonves, CEO of CBS Corp., was projecting confidence during a conference call with analysts last week. "We have a full slate of new, first-run programs ready to go, both now and at midseason. Our dramas and comedies repeat extremely well," he said, adding, "The bottom line is this: In the event of a strike, we are fully prepared to offer alternative programming, and we would anticipate no material impact on the company for the remainder of the television season."

Reality TV bailout
Of course, advertisers ultimately will make that determination. And many other networks approach the strike in far better shape than CBS, which, along with ABC, is home to a bevy of new shows struggling to connect with viewers: ABC's "Private Practice," "Pushing Daisies" and "Samantha Who" and CBS's "The Big Bang Theory" and "Cane." By comparison, Fox has only 15 hours of prime time to program, and six of those hours are already covered by reality programming.

"If you buy a schedule as an advertiser, and the schedule isn't what you bought, you'd have the option to re-express that money or to take that money back," said John Swift, exec VP-managing partner of activation at Omnicom Group's PHD U.S. "If this is a prolonged strike, it could be catastrophic for both sides."

While CBS projects an air of confidence, things may be getting more complicated at its sibling film company, Paramount Pictures. The Teamsters union has urged its members to not cross WGA picket lines. As a result some productions that are in the middle of reshoots are sure to be affected, including David Fincher's new Paramount film, "The Curious Case of Benjamin Button," which insiders say can't wrap without the transportation the Teamsters provide.
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