RENEE MONTAGNE, host:
This is MORNING EDITION from NPR News. I'm Renee Montagne.
It was a long and ultimately fruitless day of negotiations yesterday. Writers for film and television will be picketing at studios in Los Angeles and New York. Today's strike is their first since 1988. The issue this time is compensation for work on the Internet and in new media.
NPR's Kim Masters reports that the experience is wrenching for everyone who works in the television industry.
KIM MASTERS: On Friday night, the cast and crew of the television show "The Sarah Connor Chronicles" had taken over part of a Los Angeles park. They were filming a scene involving the search for a corpse in a ravine.
Unidentified Man: All right, Dave, cut the smoke a little bit - just a little too much. Standby.
MASTERS: This show is based on the protagonist in the Terminator films and it represents an extensive wager for Fox which will begin broadcasting it in January.
Unidentified Man: Set and action.
MASTERS: 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.
Mr. THOMAS DEKKER (Actor): It does threaten everything, but it's for a cause and I understand and I respect it and hope it goes away quick.
MASTERS: James Middleton is a producer on the show. Even before the picketing, he says, the strike was causing disruption.
Mr. JAMES MIDDLETON (Producer): It creates tension and anxiety, you know, throughout the crew because, first, there's uncertainty and that makes everybody nervous and it takes your focus away from the task at hand.
MASTERS: And as with any crisis, it takes up time.
Mr. MIDDLETON: You have to discuss what's happening with all your department heads, all your crew members. In our world, that time takes away from attention to the show, and that has an impact.
MASTERS: 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.
Mr. MIDDLETON: 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, you know, from staff writers up to our show runner, and it is horrible.
MASTERS: A show runner is usually a producer and a writer, a person who wears two hats. Show runners make the most money, and they're in a delicate position. Contractually, they're obligated to do their producing jobs. But it isn't exactly clear where producing ends and writing begins.
Mr. DANIEL BLACK (Lawyer): There are gray areas in terms of is something a producing function or something a writing function?
MASTERS: Daniel Black is an attorney who represents a number of show runners. His clients are in a bind. For example, the Writers Guild is ordering them to turn over copies of off-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 often day-to-day issues that arise during filming. If dialogue isn't working, can a producer-writer tweak the scene without violating strike rules? The Writers Guild says, no, Black says, but the studios disagree.
Mr. BLACK: I think decisions are going to be made on the set, and whether it's writing or not, both sides or everyone is going to try to do what they can to complete the particular, fill-in-the-blank, episode or scene of a movie or what have you.
MASTERS: 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 as "30 Rock," "Desperate Housewives," "Hannah Montana," "Grey's Anatomy" and "Ugly Betty."
On the set of the "The Sarah Connor Chronicles," James Middleton says it might be possible to work through scripts that have already been written, but he's worried that won't be enough.
Mr. MIDDLETON: We want to grab a big audience with our premiere, and we want to please them and involve them and reward them for watching our show. And we'll have a number of episodes to do that, but I'd like to have 12, you know, plus the pilot. And with this work stoppage, I'm not sure that we're going have that.
MASTERS: Middleton and every other producer wants 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.
Kim Masters, NPR News.
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