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When Writers Strike, What Happens to TV?

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A dispute over royalties and new media has resulted in television and film writers going on strike. But how will it affect what we see on the screen? Farai Chideya talks with Larry Wilmore, an Emmy award-winning writer who also sits on the negotiating committee for the Writers Guild of America.

FARAI CHIDEYA, host:

From NPR News, this is NEWS & NOTES. I'm Farai Chideya.

TV and film writers are on strike. These are the folks who write the punch lines for your late-night host and even write in the pratfalls for your sitcoms. It's the guild's first strike in 20 years. The conflict centers around royalties from Internet and wireless business and from DVD sales.

To talk about this and more, we have Larry Wilmore. He's an Emmy Award-winning writer who also sits on the Writers Guild negotiating committee. Larry is currently the senior black correspondent on "The Daily Show." His writing credits include "The Bernie Mac Show," "The Office," "Fresh Prince of Bel-Air" and "In Living Color."

Hey, Larry.

Mr. LARRY WILMORE (Writer; Member, Writers Guild Negotiating Committee, Writers Guild of America): Hey, Farai.

CHIDEYA: So you wear so many different hats. Give us some examples of what hats that you wear are and are not included under this because you're on air and off air. What would be affected in your life?

Mr. WILMORE: Well, right now, for instance, I just sold a show to HBO that I will be writing and acting. And then I can't develop it right now because of the strike. So until the strike is resolved, I won't be able to take any meetings about it. I can't write at home on it. I'm not allowed to do any work on it, or even meet with them. I - we haven't even talked about the story for it yet, so I can't move forward on it at all until the strike is resolved.

In regards to "The Daily Show," I usually go to New York about twice a month and record some segments, do a couple of lives. And I can't even do that right now because the show has to shut down because almost everything we do in that show is topical. And, you know, you certainly needs the writers. I also write my own beats too. So I can't really do much right now to be honest with you. And…

CHIDEYA: So things that we think might be spontaneous are off the cuff because writers are working on them.

Mr. WILMORE: Right.

CHIDEYA: They also were included, including the late-night talk shows and things like that.

Mr. WILMORE: That's absolutely correct, you know. In fact, that's what gives those shows that spontaneities when the performer has that material and they can, you know, sometimes they can adlib from there whatever but they have that comfort of having that material under them.

And you have shows like Jay Leno and David Letterman, like Letterman's Top Ten List and, you know, all of Leno's stuff. They - I think they're both shutting down. They can't really do anything.

CHIDEYA: Television has so many different aspects to it. There is the issue of who actually writes the material.

Mr. WILMORE: Right.

CHIDEYA: And African-Americans haven't been highly represented in that question of who watches. And black Americans have been, in some ways, overrepresented in that. And then, also, the question of who gets paid for what.

Mr. WILMORE: Right.

CHIDEYA: We got a statement from the Alliance of Motion Picture and Television Producers. They didn't make themselves available to come on and they said, we made an attempt at meeting them - meaning, you guys - in a number of their key areas including Internet streaming and jurisdiction in new media. Ultimately, the guild was unwilling to compromise on most of their major demands. It is unfortunate that they chose to take this irresponsible action.

What's actually on the table when we talk about DVD, new media, Internet streaming? What's the beef about between these two guilds?

Mr. WILMORE: When the companies say that, I mean, it's very disingenuous for them to say that. I mean, they had about 75 rolled bags on the table, you know. So it's like someone, you know, stealing your car and then giving you back your car radio and saying, hey, come on, we've made a move, you know. Why aren't you making a move? But you took our car. What are you talking about?

I mean, the big issues are really the present and the future. And TV is changing. The way shows have been watched is changing. And there are a lot of uncertainties in the future. There are many shows that don't show reruns anymore. And that's - your writers and actors make a lot of money off from what are known as residuals in entertainment for work that you've already done that's rerun. And there's not a lot of jurisdiction in the Internet world for that sort of thing right now. And many times, the companies take a show. They don't rerun it but they'll show it on the Internet, for instance. And they'll have ad money come in for that show but then the writers aren't getting paid.

So that's money that's directly leaving a writer. That's not even like we're asking for something extra. That's money that's already in your pocket that is now leaving. And that's a major bone of contention because, let's say, Farai, 10 years from now, let's say it's even more drastic. Let's say TV barely exists anymore. Everybody just downloads TV shows when they want to. You know, it could go there. Well, you'll never know.

If we aren't getting paid for that, a whole middle-class of writers would leave the business. In fact, John Bowman called residual payment as one of the cheapest form of research and development that this town can have.

You take a writer like Marc Cherry, who wrote on shows like "Golden Girls" and some other shows. He went about eight or nine years without working on a show, Farai. He completely existed on residual checks. At the end of that period, he wrote "Desperate Housewives," which has become a multimillion, almost billion-dollar enterprise for ABC. So that was a great thing for him to be able to stay in the business, living on residual checks. If you take that away from writers, you're going to have a lot of people who are going to be forced to leave the business.

CHIDEYA: Larry, let me just put another spin on it which is content. Television is constantly and highly critique for whether or not it represents American diversity well, whether it represents American culture in its fullness, whether it represents stereotypes. When you look at something like this strike, it is an industry-based strike, but the same way we cover issues in the auto industry, we also cover the television industry.

Mr. WILMORE: Right.

CHIDEYA: When it comes down to people sitting in their homes, facing their television sets, will this have any effect, pro or con, on the quality of what people see? And how much television reflects what America is and who Americans are?

Mr. WILMORE: That's a great question. You never know what the effects of a strike are going to be. Certainly, some of the effects will be that people will see more what are called unscripted shows. And right now, television, especially in dramas, I think, is doing a pretty good job of being more diverse, shows like "Grey's Anatomy" and "Lost," and - in fact, "Grey's Anatomy" is run by an African-American woman who created it. And those shows are going to be off the air. And we don't know what is going to replace them once their current new episodes ran out, you know.

And I think - I don't know if most people are going to be affected by it in the short term. But what's going to happen is the companies are going spend a lot of money plugging these holes. And a lot of money is going to be lost.

For instance, the strike in 1988 cost the companies about $500 million of losses, that six-month strike. That was in 1988 dollars. But if they had agreed to the contract, it probably would have been like $50 million. There - you know, it was the amounts that they could have paid to avoid those losses was miniscule, you know. And you never know how the TV landscape is going to change because of strikes. Many times they have long-lasting changes for a short amount of time. You take a show like "Cops" that was put on in 1988 because of the strike. It's still on the air. And that was - that show was put on just the plug some holes, you know.

So certainly, TV could change a lot. And what's dangerous is that some people, you know, you take some minority writers or people who are trying - who will write on the fringes of the business, these people could be pushed out of business during the strike. You never know.

CHIDEYA: Well, Larry, thanks a lot.

Mr. WILMORE: Oh, you're welcome. It's always good talking to you.

CHIDEYA: Larry Wilmore, Emmy Award-winning writer, also sits on the Writers Guild negotiating committee.

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