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Icy NYC is the perfect metaphor for writers strike negotiations

Aaron Barnhart
McClatchy Newspapers (MCT)

NEW YORK - Hollywood seems a nice enough place to live. But if you're looking for weather metaphors to capture the mood of the TV and movie writers' strike, entering its seventh week, you need to go east.

Specifically, to Times Square on a miserable Thursday morning last week, where the Writers Guild of America-East was picketing the headquarters of Viacom, the media giant that runs MTV, VH1, Comedy Central and many other media outlets.

Out in L.A., talks have reached a stalemate between the 12,000-member guild and the Alliance of Motion Picture and Television Producers, which negotiates on behalf of the big six entertainment conglomerates. Everybody is losing buckets of money, and each side's public posture has turned to grim determination.

But out on the picket lines, the Californians kind of look like they're having fun. They wear color-coordinated T-shirts and make up creative chants like, "Peter Chernin, what you earnin'?" (Chernin, who oversees the Fox empire, was paid $42.5 million last year, according to Fortune.)

When organizers created an early-morning picket line to prevent delivery trucks from entering the studio lots, volunteers rushed to sign up because it offered them relief from the hot midday sun.

Meanwhile in New York, the forecast for Thursday called for snow, sleet and temperatures in the low 30s. Now that's more like it.

"It's the end of the world," said a female striker as she stopped at the soaking wet sign-in table to repair her sign, which had been pulled apart by the wind and freezing rain.

"You picked a great day to come out," said Eric Stangel, who is co-head writer of "Late Show With David Letterman" along with his brother Justin. "It's like somebody's sneezing on us."

While thousands of their West Coast colleagues have shown up for daily strike duty, the Viacom picket - one of just two scheduled last week - attracted 170 hardy souls who sloshed in a circle on Broadway for four hours as the sky dropped a mixture that got progressively wetter and colder as the day wore on. There was no chanting and only occasional roars whenever a passing motorist honked a horn in solidarity.

In some ways these writers are the canaries in the mine, the early-warning system that all will not be right in the television world in 2008 if the strike doesn't end soon.

They represent "Late Show," "Late Night With Conan O'Brien," "Saturday Night Live," "The Daily Show" and "The Colbert Report," some of the most-watched late-night shows on the air. NBC announced Monday that Jay Leno's "Tonight" show and "Late Night" will return to the air Jan. 2 without writers.

Because the comedy on these programs is driven by news of the day, they've been off the air since the strike began in early November. Fans are unhappy. Rumors continue to swirl about Letterman also returning to the air to slake the public's thirst for satire.

It's possible he will do so with writers. According to the Associated Press, the union representing striking Hollywood writers told its members Saturday it would try to deal directly with Hollywood studios and production companies, such as Letterman's Worldwide Pants, bypassing the umbrella organization that has been representing them.

(Letterman, Leno and Jimmy Kimmel are all paying their non-writing crews out of their own pockets, for now.)

The day before visiting the Viacom picket, I was a guest on the MSNBC talk show "Hardball" because the host, Chris Matthews, was convinced that the strike was having an impact on the 2008 presidential race. The candidates, Matthews said, were getting a "free ride" because Jon Stewart, Stephen Colbert and the rest weren't deconstructing the campaign on a nightly basis.

Out on the line, two of the guys who write for Stewart felt and mocked Matthews' pain.

"It's heartbreaking," said "Daily Show" writer Sam Means. "The emergence of Mike Huckabee? It's terrible."

"I've had to keep my Huckabee jokes to myself," agreed his colleague Scott Jacobson. "The world is really missing out. I pity you guys."

The rest of the viewing public hasn't noticed much change in prime time, but that's about to change. Two-thirds of network-scripted shows have a month's worth or less of fresh episodes in the can. At CBS' "Big Bang Theory," the shelf has been bare for weeks. The networks might save most of their remaining inventory for February sweeps, but that's only delaying the inevitable.

The Television Critics Association last week called off its midseason press tour, and the May upfronts may be the next casualty. That annual ritual, in which networks present their fall lineups to advertisers, is in jeopardy because pilot season is on hold, too, and no one knows when there will be new shows to unveil.

On Thursday night, in the warm, dry, festive environs of the CBS holiday press party - held on the 35th floor of its signature Black Rock building - network executives and journalists took turns asking one another when they thought the strike would end.

Some of the scribes saw a ray of hope in Thursday's announcement that the Directors Guild of America, whose contract with the producers is expiring soon, agreed to hold off the start of negotiations for a couple of weeks. That move was seen as the directors' attempt to nudge the writers and moguls back to the bargaining table.

About the collapse of talks Dec. 7: While many thought the producers had walked away from the table too hastily, more blame was heaped on the guild for re-introducing the hot potato of reality and animation.

Hundreds of writers and producers on reality shows and animated series currently do not have the moguls' consent to be in the guild, which would entitle them to residuals on their work and a health plan, among other perks. Reality and animated shows are cheap to make, partly because of savings on these personnel costs. To ask that these shows be organized, as the guild did in its counter-proposal, was either audacious or idiotic, depending on your point of view.

Out in the cold and sleet, Melissa Salmons, an East Coast soap opera writer and part of the guild's negotiating team, said that reality and animation were the "gay marriage and abortion" of the strike - wedge issues that the moguls knew they could use to try to divide the union. Many writers have said that the only issue that really matters is getting paid for Internet streaming of their work (currently they aren't paid anything for it).

But Writers Guild of America-West members complain that the trade papers, such as Variety and the Hollywood Reporter, pounce on any dissent in the writers' ranks, often at the behest of tipsters who work for the conglomerates. Others bemoan the declining media coverage of the mass rallies that draw as many as 5,000 members to a single studio lot.

In L.A. the strike-news leader is not a local newspaper or industry rag but Deadline Hollywood Daily, a blog updated around the clock by veteran entertainment reporter Nikki Finke, whose scoops and voluminous comments show an intense interest among strikers and striker-haters.

On the East Coast, though, even meager strike coverage is something to envy.

"What East Coast media coverage?" said Bill Scheft, the sardonic dean of the Letterman writing staff and the show's strike captain. "I can't tell you how many people came up to me and congratulated me for the strike being over" - thinking they were stagehands who briefly walked off several Broadway plays - "and that's because the stagehands' strike got covered every day, maximum coverage, and we didn't."

He thinks it has to do with the fact that most of the conglomerates also own local and network news operations: "Why would you cover people striking against you?"

Still, everyone interviewed said a turnout of 170 was pretty good for New York, even in mild conditions. And far from crushing the writers, the cold weather and chilly negotiations have only boosted morale.

As Letterman writer Lee Ellenberg put it, "I sort of liken it to a family funeral, when everyone says, `Why did it take something so tragic to get us all together?'"

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