H’w’d’s pens hope for a deal

Top TV writers hold breath as deadline looms
April 12, 2001
By Josef Adalian, Michael Schneider
From Daily Variety

With writers and producers set to resume contract negotiations next week, the TV industry’s top scribes still seem to support their union — even if they’re worried about how things seem to be shaping up.

A Daily Variety survey of A-list showrunners reveals growing concern that time is running out for making a deal. While solidly pro-guild, most scribes want to avoid a strike, worried that webs are all too willing to go with Plan B: fall skeds filled with newsmags and “Survivor”-like reality shows.

“If my guild goes on strike, I have no choice but to support it,” said Bruce Helford, who this season will churn out nearly 100 half-hours as exec producer of “The Drew Carey Show” and several other laffers. “But I don’t want a strike. And I don’t think there should be a strike. This can be resolved.”

Dodging stop signs

Helford and many of his peers have been through previous work stoppages. Knowing the dire consequences, most desperately want to see one avoided.

“Law & Order” exec producer Dick Wolf said he’s dumbfounded that both sides have publicly drawn a line in the sand. “People should walk into a room, shut their mouths and not come out until they have a deal. It’s inconceivable when you’re $100 million apart.”

A fair number of scribes are still hopeful that a resolution is at hand.

“NYPD Blue” creator Steven Bochco, while quick to note his support for the Writers Guild of America, believes where the guild stands now isn’t necessarily where it will be a month from now. Ditto for the producers.

“If you listen to the guild characterize the issues, it’s ‘We’re being raped.’ If you listen to the producers, it’s ‘We’re barely surviving,'” Bochco says.

“From a negotiating standpoint, everybody takes positions now they’re prepared to come off from later. Somewhere between the two extremes, there’s a reality that will accommodate a deal.”

Bochco thinks that a deal won’t come together until the last minute.

“It’s a high-wire act,” he says. “Everyone wants to rattle the sabre; everybody wants to spin the spin to their own benefit as long as they can because they perceive that it gives them an edge. It’s playing chicken.”

Sizing up opposition

“Family Law” exec producer Paul Haggis added that the timetable for an agreement is tied to egos on both sides.

“It depends how much people want to hold out their peckers,” he said.

Wolf said that’s already happening; He’s particularly peeved by the public posturing from the WGA’s John Wells and studio exec Jeffrey Katzenberg.

“If there is a strike, this will go down as the Wells-Katzenberg strike,” Wolf said. “These two gentlemen have behaved irresponsibly. This is a labor negotiation.”

“Buffy the Vampire Slayer” exec producer Joss Whedon isn’t hopeful about a settlement.

“Would I love to avoid a strike? Whoo, doggy!” he said. “I wish we could reach an amicable agreement beforehand. But sometimes you have to go on strike. I wish it weren’t that way.”

Phil Rosenthal, creator and exec producer of “Everybody Loves Raymond,” is frustrated by producers’ rhetoric that scribes are demanding the sun and the moon.

“People watch TV for two reasons: the writing and the acting. Yet those are not the people who get the lion’s share of the money,” he said. “Since there’s so much around, why can’t everybody play nice?”

“Just Shoot Me” creator Steve Levitan, working on the new Fox laffer “Greg the Bunny,” said he’s been satisfied with how the WGA has handled negotiations. He believes that there are serious issues at stake that need to be addressed by producers. Nonetheless, he wants to see a strike averted if at all possible.

‘What gets accomplished?’

“I often wonder why negotiators can’t just go into a room, lock the doors and not come out until they have a deal,” he said. “Ultimately, what gets accomplished in a prolonged strike, other than innocent people losing their homes and businesses?”

Alan Kirschenbaum, exec producer of CBS frosh comedy hit “Yes, Dear,” is similarly pro-guild and similarly perplexed at the lack of ongoing talks.

“I can’t understand why they’re not out there negotiating every day,” Kirschenbaum said. “It’s hard to understand why no one seems to be concerned with concluding this beforehand. These people are all businessmen.”

If there is a strike, Bochco warned that the dispute could take on a life of its own.

“People get backed in. People get angry. They lose sight of the issues, and it becomes about testicles,” he said. “At that point, there’s no telling what could happen.”