Hollywood writers' strike deal brings back hit shows

Andrew Gumbel
Tuesday 12 February 2008 01:00

Hollywood's film and television writers began returning to work yesterday as a bitter three-month-long strike over the future of digital media came to a swift and remarkably harmonious conclusion.

A bruised and battered entertainment industry will now set about restarting hit shows that have been forced to close – among them Grey's Anatomy, Desperate Housewives and the American version of The Office – and also come up with some one-liners for the Academy Awards, which will now go ahead as normal on 24 February.

There is still some scope for a last-minute hitch. The 12,000 members of the Writers Guild of America have until the end of today to vote, either in person or by fax, on the decision to suspend the strike, and will then have another 10 days to give their verdict on the deal struck by their union representatives with the big studios.

Conceivably, they could refuse to end the stoppage, or reject the deal and thus resume it some time towards the end of next week. For now, only the so-called show runners – head writers with some producing responsibilities – have gone back to the desks. Nobody else will resume work until tomorrow at the earliest.

However, the mood at two packed guild meetings over the weekend – one held in New York, the other in Los Angeles – suggests that the writers are more than happy to start work again and claim the events of the past several months as a victory for their cause.

Patric Verrone, president of the WGA's west coast branch, proclaimed the outcome as a huge victory. "Since we began negotiations in July, we've been saying, 'If they get paid, we get paid'. This contract makes that a reality," he told a news conference. "It's the best deal this guild has bargained for in 30 years, after the most successful strike this guild has waged in 35 years."

The focus of the dispute was payment for entertainment content distributed over the internet, mobile phones, iPod devices and other forms of new digital media. Although nobody knows exactly what the business model for the digital future will look like, the writers were anxious to establish the principle that they should receive an equitable share of any profits.

The broader grievance, though, was that the writers have felt cheated out of revenues from video and DVDs since the early 1980s – an issue that prompted them to launch their last major strike in 1988, to little avail – and they were determined not to get diddled all over again.

For six months leading up to the strike, which began in November, the WGA leadership got little joy out of the Association of Motion Picture and Television Producers and its chief negotiator, Nick Counter. In December, about a month into the stoppage, the AMPTP severed all negotiations with the WGA and chose instead to turn its attention to the less militant Directors Guild, whose three-year contract is up in June.

The DGA struck a deal, including provisions for new media, last month. At that point the writers faced a stark choice – accept a similar deal, with a few improvements, or else go for the so-called "nuclear winter" option, a protracted stoppage that would presumably bring the Screen Actors Guild on board once their contract expired in June.

As negotiations resumed, Mr Counter took a back seat and let two studio chiefs, Bob Iger of Disney and Peter Chernin of Rupert Murdoch's News Corp, do the negotiating for him. Many of the previous obstacles to progress suddenly lifted – something that prompted Mr Verrone to thank the two studio negotiators in his news conference.

It remains to be seen just how much of a victory the writers have won. Internet revenues remain a nebulous concept, while they have lost millions of dollars in pay.

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