Hollywood cliffhanger: will militant writers leave Tinseltown in the dark?

With American viewers searching in vain for their favourite TV shows, striking wordsmiths have proved to the studios that they cannot be ignored in their fight for a fairer share of the programme profits. Andrew Gumbel reports
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It's easy to make fun of Hollywood's film and television writers as they clamour for a fairer shake from the studios and media conglomerates who cut their pay cheques. Newspaper cartoons across America last week picked up the obvious theme, even as the writers were putting down their pens and heading for the picket lines. Should they drive a Mercedes or a Porsche to the protests? Wear Chanel or Hermès?

Public sympathy, though, may not be entirely necessary as the writers – not all quite as rich and pampered as middle America might imagine – embark on the fight of their lives for something their corporate masters seem loathe to grant them: a share of the profits that their work generates in the rapidly evolving new media landscape of downloads, internet streaming and video phones.

It's a fight that is rapidly revealing itself to be deadly serious. On day one, last Monday, the late-night chat shows and satirical news programmes went dark. On day three, some of America's favourite comedy and drama series started to close down, among them Desperate Housewives and the US version of The Office. Lost and Grey's Anatomy, two more highly popular shows, are believed to be just days away from closing down production.

Fox announced an indefinite delay in the start of the seventh season of its hit thriller series 24, saying it preferred to wait until it had a whole season's worth of scripts – each one chronicling a single hour in a typically fraught 24-hour period – rather than start the season and risk having to break the tension and shut it down midway.

If the strike continues beyond Christmas – and all indications are that it could last at least that long – then even more of America's favourite entertainment is likely to vanish. The daytime soap operas probably have a month of finished scripts in them. Most scripted drama productions only have enough scripts to see them through to January or February. The shows that could potentially replace them are all now in the deep freeze.

Week one was undoubtedly a victory for the writers – inflicting far more damage that the studios expected thanks to their united front and the high-profile support of many actors. In New York, Robin Williams was on hand to hand out bagels to writers outside the Time Warner building. Tim Robbins, David Duchovny and Julianne Moore also stood up to be counted.

In Los Angeles, the former presidential candidate and civil rights leader Jesse Jackson – who never met a protest he didn't like – was at the Paramount Lot along with the anti-corporate band Rage Against the Machine to chivvy on the rank and file.

The biggest victory for the writers, though, was securing the support of team leaders, known as showrunners – without whom it is extraordinarily difficult to put even a finished script into production. A hybrid of writers and producers, showrunners typically oversee last-minute changes, iron out any inconsistencies, and so on.

During the last writers' strike, in 1988, the showrunners kept working, which both prolonged the dispute – it went on for 22 weeks – and made it that much harder for the writers to get what they wanted. (Opinions vary on the outcome, but the writers were essentially cut out of the lion's share of profits on video – a big source of the present resentment and anger.) This time, their participation has dramatically upped the stakes and forced show closures much sooner than the studios expected. CBS, Fox and NBC all sent out letters to dozens of showrunners trying to scare them back to work by telling them they were in breach of their contracts and therefore fired.

The showrunners, stood firm, offering to return to work only if the Alliance of Motion Picture and Television Producers returned to the negotiating table. The producers, for their part, have said they won't resume talks until the guild calls a truce and orders its members back to work at least temporarily.

Up to now, the producers have assumed that because they have much deeper pockets than the writers they can sit out the dispute and come out on top. That strategy could collapse, however, if the writers stand firm, win the support of the directors and actors whose contracts are up for renewal next June and bring Hollywood to a standstill.

All sides now agree that the next phase of the battle will come after Thanksgiving later this month, when the Directors Guild begins its negotiations with the AMPTP. If the producers can coax the directors into settling for a deal that excludes new media profit participation and keeps DVD royalties low, that will put huge pressure on the writers to back down. If, on the other hand, the directors insist on the same improved terms as the writers, the AMPTP will almost certainly be forced to cede significant ground.

Since both sides are militant, almost fanatical, in their adherence to their positions, any resolution is likely to come slowly and painfully. And that raises all sorts of intriguing questions of what the schedulers will line up to replace cancelled shows. One remote possibility is that the networks will try to hire non-guild writers from other countries.

But the Writers Guild of Great Britain warned last week it would not be in the interest of a UK writer who wished to return to the US to break the strike. "Strike-breaking would be a short-term payday but would have a devastating long-term effect on a writer's US career," the guild said.

The dispute has thrown up some ironies almost too good to have been scripted. Several commentators have noted how poorly written the picket signs have been – many no more sophisticated than the words "on strike". Nobody, after all, told the writers to stop being creative in the service of their own dispute.

One intriguing victim of the dispute has been a new show, originally slated to air on a Time Warner cable channel, called Scabs. A press release announcing the show said it was about "two people whose lives didn't pan out as they had hoped and seek out companies with employees striking to find jobs as line-crossing scabs". The producers initially thought they would air the show anyway, but by Thursday they had changed their minds and decided the topic was just too provocative.