Hollywood Strike Affecting Writers of Color

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The Tonight Show with Jay Leno and the Late Show with David Letterman were among the first casualties of a strike by members of the Writers Guild of America, pitting writers against TV and movie producers. Media critic Eric Deggans and Larry Andries discuss the strike, its effects on writers of color, and what it means for upcoming television seasons.

MICHEL MARTIN, host:

If you were hoping for a few new laughs from Jay Leno or David Letterman last night, you were out of luck. There was no one there to write the jokes. And the programs were forced into reruns. The two shows were among the first casualties of a strike by Hollywood writers against TV and movie producers. Members of the Writers Guild of America walked out yesterday morning after failing to reach an agreement with studio executives on compensation for Internet and DVD profits.

Joining us to talk about the strike is writer and producer Larry Andries at our studio at NPR West; and Eric Deggans, TV and media critic for the St. Petersburg Times. He's at the Poynter Institute in St. Petersburg, Florida.

Thank you both so much for speaking with us.

Mr. LARRY ANDRIES (Writer, Producer; Board Member, Organization of Black Screenwriters): Glad to be here.

Mr. ERIC DEGGANS (TV and Media Critic, St. Petersburg Times): Good to be here.

MARTIN: Larry, if you would - in a nut shell - tell us what the strike is about.

Mr. ANDRIES: It's about the next generation of technology. Eighteen years ago, the Writers Guild took a minority share of the new technology called DVD. And that was a terrible contract for us. And now we have video-on-demand and movies on iPods. And the Writers Guild wants a fair share of this new technology.

MARTIN: Now, you are both a writer and a producer. So are you striking yourself?

(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr. ANDRIES: Yes, I am. And people in my position are in a - weird in a position that you could write a script that's about to be produced yet you can't change it or rewrite it for contingency. And so, yeah, you're split between two masters.

MARTIN: So are you supportive of the strike? Is the writer side of you supportive of the side that's striking your producer side?

Mr. ANDRIES: I am very much so because we're setting the bar for the actors guild and the directors guild because our contract will set the paradigm for their negotiations and we're setting the table for the next 15 years or so of contracts.

MARTIN: And as I understand it, you were actually in the middle of writing a pilot for a television program now. So what happens to you? You've got to stop writing or can you continue to write but you can't turn your work in? Now, how does that work?

Mr. ANDRIES: I can certainly think about it for the next couple of weeks or months or how long it takes. But I'm in limbo. I was right in the middle of the development process. And now that's at a screeching halt. And so I can certainly do anything I want to on my own but I can't submit it to anyone.

MARTIN: You can't submit it to anybody. And forgive me for asking a personal question. Does that mean you have no income?

Mr. ANDRIES: You know, we knew this was coming for about a year now. And so I've been sitting my pennies for this eventuality. But, yeah, no income for a while.

MARTIN: All right. Eric - Eric Deggans, to you, there are about 12,000 members of the Writers Guild, as I understand it. How many of them are people of color?

Mr. DEGGANS: That, unfortunately, I don't know. I would imagine not many.

MARTIN: Well, a Writers Guild study released earlier this year found that minority writers accounted for fewer than 10 percent of employed television writers from 1999 to 2005. Now, you've spent a lot of time, you know, in Hollywood and New York. So does that sound about right to you?

Mr. DEGGANS: Yeah. Yeah. That sounds about right.

MARTIN: And we talked earlier at the beginning of the fall television season about the percentage of minority characters on programs and the number of programs that are actually ran by people of color. So I guess what I'm wondering here is if you are a person of color and you're particularly committed to programs ran by people of color, it sounds to me like you're really not that affected.

Mr. DEGGANS: Well, it's been interesting to see the cascading effect of this strike. Basically, the shows that need material right away are the ones that are affected first. So we've seen the "Late Night Show" go into reruns. We've seen "The Daily Show" go into reruns. I imagine "The Colbert Report" is go into be in reruns as well. Then, eventually, the scripts will run out on the soap operas. And so we'll see them have to go into reruns or some other alternative programming. And then, eventually, probably around January, we will see the network television shows also have to go into reruns or news magazines or reality shows, TV shows that utilize producers who are not defined as writers or don't have the status with the WGA. And so there'll be a cascading effect through the industry as different types of shows bump up against the need to use writers that are unionized.

MARTIN: Well, how does reality television fit into all this, Eric? Because you were the one who sort of told us that reality TV is one of these places that has a lot of loyalty from a diverse viewership because it tends to be more diverse. So how does reality get affected by - the shows like "American Idol," for example?

Mr. DEGGANS: Well, you know, the reality show producers have been very sly about how they define what people do on reality TV shows. When there was an attempt to unionize the people who do what we would have called writing, the show is basically figuring out what the storylines will be and, even occasionally, giving lines to people. I know it's a shock that reality TV is contrived. But…

MARTIN: I'm shocked.

Mr. DEGGANS: …what they did was they redefined these people and they called them either producers or editors so - as a way to sort of keep them from getting unionized, so they wouldn't have to face the same problems that the scripted shows are facing right now. So what you'll see if you're a fan of reality shows is more reality if the strike goes on as long as some people fear.

MARTIN: So Larry, what does this mean for someone like you? Does it mean that if a reality show offers you an opportunity, could you then participate in it if you wanted to or would that not be considered appropriate?

Mr. ANDRIES: I could but that's not the side of the street that I walk on. I don't think it will affect me when the strike is over. I've been doing this for quite a while and so I have a beachhead. It will affect more that first time writer or that writer that just was staffed on a show because the market may shrink after the strike is over when the producers realize we don't need all these writers. And most writers of color are in the low level staff writer positions. And those seats may not be there when the strike is over.

MARTIN: And what about some of the new programs that have been - that are featuring characters of color that also have involvement by writers of color. Some of them have been well-reviewed. Some of them have not. Are they then more vulnerable because they don't have as much time to build up audience loyalty?

Mr. ANDRIES: They are. If a new show came out of the gate as a hit, that show is fine. But if that show was called on the bubble, that's a good opportunity for a studio or network to let that show go rather than staying after a long haul.

MARTIN: Now, last time, something like this was in - 1988? I think you told us it lasted for five months. Speaking of the long haul, do you think that the strike will last that long?

Mr. ANDRIES: I think it's either going to be a week or a long, long time. It's either or. It's a blinking contest - which side can withstand the most pain the longest.

MARTIN: And Eric, what do you think? Or how do you - do you think that most viewers care?

Mr. DEGGANS: I think viewers don't care so much right now because there's not that many shows that have been affected. Unfortunately, the problem with the work stoppage like this is that it has to go on for a while for the viewers to notice and start complaining and for people like me to start writing about it. It's not that unusual for "The Daily Show" or for Letterman to be in reruns. So as I noted in my blog today, you know, day one of the strike for the viewer doesn't feel that different than the days leading up to it.

Now, when we're two months in and half the network's prime time schedule was reality shows, people are going to start complaining. And that's when we're going to see action. And unfortunately, I think it's going to be like the baseball strike where both sides will lose. Viewers are going to find other ways to get their entertainment. They're going to go to movies. They're going to go to the Internet. They're going to go to cable. They're going to find other ways. I mean, already, we've had problems with network TV viewership being down. This is just going to make it worse.

MARTIN: Larry, why is it that - going back to the question of the people of color - you were telling us that writers of color tend to be in the more junior positions. They tend to be the first tier, writers assistants, things of that sort. But this has been on for a long time. Why is it that writers of color don't seem to be making more headway?

Mr. ANDRIES: The vast majority of writers in the Writers Guild work in television. And the vast majority of those had worked in Comedies. And the vast majority of those worked on black comedies. And that genre is a dying breed with the disappearance of the WB and UPN. And so, there are less opportunities to rise up a ladder.

MARTIN: And what do you think the outcome - and you said it's a blinking contest. It's either going to be a week or it's going to be a lot longer than that. At the end of it, I guess the - who comes out depends on how long the thing lasts and so forth. But do you think there's any prospect of more diversity at the end of an experience like this or does it - is one question really not affected by the other?

Mr. ANDRIES: I think, at the end of the day, the Hollywood is Hollywood. And this too shall pass after a while and we'll be back to status quo.

MARTIN: All right. Well, good luck to you.

Mr. DEGGANS: Thank you.

MARTIN: Larry Andries is a television writer and producer. And he's also a board member with the Organization of Black Screenwriters. He joined us from NPR West. We're also joined by TV and media critic Eric Deggans. He joined us from the Poynter Institute in St. Petersburg, Florida.

Larry, I'm going to say goodbye to you and thank you for joining us.

Mr. ANDRIES: Thank you.

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Hollywood Writers Strike for New Media Royalties

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Film and TV writers walked away from their computer keyboards and joined picket lines on Monday after their demands for a bigger piece of Internet-derived revenues were not met.

Picket lines began to appear outside NBC headquarters in New York's Rockefeller Center early, while in Los Angeles, writers were planning to picket 14 studio locations in four-hour shifts each day until a new deal is reached.

The contract between the 12,000-member Writers Guild of America and the Alliance of Motion Picture and Television Producer expired Oct. 31. Talks that began this summer failed to produce much progress on the writers' key demand for a bigger slice of revenues from the distribution of films and TV shows over the Internet.

It is the first strike since 1988.

On Friday night, the cast and crew on the television show The Sarah Connor Chronicles, which is set to begin airing in January on Fox, had taken over part of a Los Angeles park. They were filming a scene involving the search for a corpse in a ravine.

Thomas Dekker plays John Connor, son of Sarah. At 19, he's already a veteran actor. And he's ready to take the strike in stride.

"It does threaten everything, but it's for a cause that I understand, and I respect it and hope it goes away soon," Connor said.

James Middleton is a producer on the show. Even before the picketing, he said, the strike was causing disruption.

"It creates tension and anxiety throughout the crew. Because first there's uncertainty and that makes everyone nervous and it takes your focus away from the task at hand," Middleton said.

As for writing the show, that's Josh Friedman's job. And Middleton says if Friedman can't write, production will grind to a halt.

"It's horrible, I mean he's my friend and the writing staff becomes your family. There's 10 people that are on our writing staff from staff writers up to our show-runner," Middleton said.

A show-runner is usually a producer and a writer—a person who wears two hats. Show runners make the most money, and they are in a delicate position. Contractually, they are obligated to do their producing jobs. But it is not clear where producing ends and writing begins.

"There are grey areas in terms of is something a producing function or is something a writing function," said Daniel Black, an attorney who represents a number of show-runners.

Black's clients are in a quandary. For example, the Writers Guild is ordering them to turn over copies of all scripts so the union can figure out whether changes have been made during the strike and punish the offenders. But the studios and networks are warning them not to provide the material. There are also day-to-day issues that arise during filming. If dialogue isn't working, can a producer-writer tweak the scene without violating strike rules?

"I think decisions are going to be made on the set and whether it's writing or not, everyone is going to try to do what they can ... to complete the scene," Black said.

That may be optimistic. Last week, dozens of show runners signed an ad in the trade paper Variety. They warned that they would enforce the strike vigorously. They come from programs as diverse at 30 Rock, Desperate Housewives, Hannah Montana, Grey's Anatomy and Ugly Betty.

On the set of the Sarah Connor Chronicles, James Middleton says it might be possible to work through scripts that have already been written. But he is worried that won't be enough.

Middleton and every other producer want a chance for their show to build an audience. But the networks could use a prolonged strike as an opportunity to drop a show if the early ratings are short of spectacular.

The two sides met for nearly 11 hours before East Coast members of the writers union announced on their Web site that the strike had begun for their 4,000 members.

"It is unfortunate that they choose to take this irresponsible action," producers said in a statement.

With additional reporting from The Associated Press

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