Writers block Hollywood as strike takes TV shows off the air

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The Independent US

Hollywood's film and television writers kicked off their strike yesterday with a spirited series of protests in New York and Los Angeles as both sides in the dispute settled in for a long, acrimonious work stoppage.

The walkout became official at one minute past midnight, despite a last-ditch attempt at mediation which – to everyone's surprise – kept going so long on Sunday that the parties were still talking on the West Coast, even as writers put down their pens on the East Coast, which is three hours ahead.

By the time morning rolled around, a cluster of writers – some of them prominent enough to be recognised by passers-by – had gathered outside the CBS building at Rockefeller Centre in midtown Manhattan, wearing black T-shirts with the word "Writer" on the back and waving banners reading "On Strike". "What do we want? Contracts!" they chanted. "When do we want it? Now!" On the other coast, similar protests were under way at the Disney and Warner Bros studios, as well as buildings belonging to the television networks CBS and NBC.

Some shows went "dark" immediately yesterday – most notably the political satire shows The Daily Show and the The Colbert Report, whose acerbic commentary on the presidential primary season is likely to be keenly missed. It also appeared likely that the late-night chat shows hosted by David Letterman and Jay Leno would vanish from the airwaves, although the networks didn't entirely rule out the possibility that the hosts would try to wing it without a script for a night or two.

Otherwise, the only noticeable difference to film and TV line-ups for the next few weeks may be one of quality. Even when TV producers have scripts ready to shoot, they like to have writers on hand to polish dialogue and make other last-minute changes on set.

That won't be happening any more – as writers make the toughest stand they can to ensure they are fairly compensated for new media platforms such as DVDs, on which they have felt shortchanged for years.

On Sunday, a federal mediator made a last big push to avert the strike. The Writers Guild made one big eleventh-hour concession, dropping its insistence on a doubling of royalties from DVD sales but that was not matched by anything substantial enough from the producers to clinch a deal.

After three months of contract negotiations, which never entirely looked like producing an agreement, both sides are extraordinarily well prepared. The writers have commandeered 300 strike captains on both coasts who will direct pickets and other protests, and have amassed a strike fund of about $12.5m (£7m)which they will farm out in the form of loans to the neediest writers and their families.

The producers have stockpiled enough movie scripts to keep their 2008 production slate on track, and enough television scripts to keep most dramas and comedies on the air at least until the spring. They say they are ready for a dispute lasting well into the new year.