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TV producers expect writers, actors to strike

Monday, January 15, 2001

By Rob Owen, Post-Gazette TV Editor

HOLLYWOOD, Calif. -- Hollywood is abuzz over the prospect of strikes by writers and actors this summer. The Hollywood Reporter has a strike countdown on its front page, which Friday showed 110 days until the Writers Guild of America contract expires and 170 days until a threatened strike by the Screen Actors Guild.

Both unions are seeking greater residual payments, more creative rights and credit guarantees.

On Saturday, the presidents of television production at the major Hollywood studios told reporters they believe there will be strikes by both unions, but they're not happy about it.

"A strike would be devastating," said Peter Roth, president of Warner Bros. Television. "The impact is not simply with numbers of jobs that would be lost ... the impact is on the viewer. In 1988 we lost 9 percent of our audience following that [writers] strike. That was a time when there were just three networks. Imagine today, with the proliferation of choice for the viewer, a strike drives viewers away from network television at a time when we can least afford it."

A strike would mean a delayed fall TV season, an abundance of reality programs and newsmagazines and few scripted series this fall. Some networks are stockpiling episodes of series in the event of a strike, but the most popular series won't have new episodes.

David Kissinger, president of Studios USA programming, said the timing for a strike couldn't be worse because of the downturn in the economy and the continuing erosion of the network television audience.

"It's as if the orchestra on the Titanic decided to start drilling holes in the ship just as the iceberg appeared," Kissinger said. "It really is tremendously self-destructive."

If everyone can see a strike looming, why not avoid it before it happens? Executives said they hope both sides will be able to reach a compromise, but they're not confident.

"It seems inevitable because both positions are entrenched enough that a resolution doesn't seem quickly on the horizon," said Dana Walden, president of 20th Century Fox Television.

Both writers and actors in the unions who were interviewed here have said the strike is being driven by the majority of members in both unions who are unemployed. They have no incentive to avoid a strike.

"Those of us on this panel tend to work with writers who are employed, so we may be less in touch with the more militant faction driving toward a strike," Kissinger said.

Joanna Gleason, who stars in the CBS sitcom "Bette," said she's been stashing money away in the event of a strike. She said she won't cross a picket line, but she's concerned about the strike threat.

"Do you know the statistics of how many people in the Screen Actors Guild are making their living acting? 85 percent aren't [working], and they are very vocal and have nothing to lose by sitting and not letting things move forward," Gleason said. "We have problems within our own ranks. It's very thorny. I'd be thrilled if everybody sat down in advance and made their peace."

NO "BULL": TNT has postponed the return of its Wall Street drama "Bull," which had been scheduled to return with new episodes tomorrow.

TNT executive vice president and general manager Steve Koonin told The Hollywood Reporter the network will stockpile new episodes in anticipation of the looming strike by actors and writers that is threatened for summer. "Bull" is now expected to return in late summer.

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