MADELEINE BRAND, host:
From the studios of NPR West, this is DAY TO DAY. I'm Madeleine Brand.
ALEX COHEN, host:
And I'm Alex Cohen.
The big story today is in our backyard - Hollywood - where screenwriters are not writing. They're walking picket lines here in Los Angeles and in New York. Their strike against the film and TV studios began at midnight last night.
In a few minutes, we'll go to New York where we checked in with the "Daily Show's" John Oliver who's on the picket line.
BRAND: And throughout the negotiations between writers and producers, there have been two big points of contention. One, the writers want to be paid when shows are broadcast online, and they asked that royalty fees for some DVD sales be doubled.
COHEN: As the strike deadline approached last night, the Writers Guild dropped its DVD demands, but that wasn't enough to stop the strike.
BRAND: Nick Counter is president of the Alliance of Motion Picture and Television Producers, which had been negotiating with the Writers Guild. After the talks fell apart last night, he sent out a statement that said, quote, "we made an attempt at meeting them 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."
COHEN: We go now to Brian Watt of member station KPCC. He's at the Fox studios in Century City where writers have just started marching on their picket lines. Brian, can you describe the scene out there at Fox.
BRIAN WATT: Well, I am standing at the signing table that they set up about 20 minutes, maybe half an hour before 9 o'clock, which was - you know all these was support to start. Around them, there were about 10 people. Now, there are people about, as far as I can see, you know, stretching down because this is a very big studio at Fox lot. I would say that there are about 50 to 75 people marching, carrying red signs - Writers Guild of America on Strike. They're wearing red t-shirts, which apparently they have already run out of because more people have already shown up than they were expecting.
COHEN: Have you had a chance to talk to any of these writers? What are they've been saying?
WATT: Well, none of them are glad to be here, but none of them appears scared. This is a very, very organized efforts. They had 300 strike captains putting it to together and they are very, very confident. They're not worried about how long this is going to take. They say they've given up hope on getting a great deal from the studios. They say they just want a fair one.
COHEN: And what kind of issues are they talking about. As we mentioned, they've dropped the DVD demands, demands for higher royalties. What are they talking about as most important to them right now?
WATT: Well, it really is all about the Internet. It's interesting that they sort of backed off their DVD demands because when you asked them about this Internet issue, this notion of being paid for Internet downloads, they're saying that it's kind of the same situation it has, was at stake years ago when the DVD question came up.
It's this notion that the studios think and they, you know, they think it -there's not a lot of money to be made or they're not really sure how much money there is to be made on the Internet. And, so they're not quite ready to negotiate with writers about exactly what their cut of that will be. And the writers - they went out - that's the way it was with DVDs and we see exactly how many people are watching television shows and movies on DVD today.
COHEN: Brian, any sense at how long this strike might go on for?
WATT: I, honestly, I - these folks, I mean, it's a very, very fresh, crisp energy out here, but they are ready to do - to be out here for as long as it takes, according to what they're saying. I mean, I haven't gotten anyone who privately say that, you know, they'll do this for a little while and then stop.
COHEN: Brian Watt of member station KPCC. He's standing at the writers' picket lines at the Fox studio. Thanks so much.
WATT: You're welcome. Thank you.
COHEN: And we go now to New York where screenwriters started picketing three hours earlier than their colleagues here in Hollywood.
BRAND: NPR's Margot Adler is on the picket line in New York City. And Margot, what's the scene like?
MARGOT ADLER: Well, I'm standing next to the picket line of hundreds of people right at Rockefeller Center. This is, of course, the Writers Guild of America (unintelligible) and its 12,000 members of the Guild were demonstrating here. I'm standing here with some amazing writers and entertainers, including John Oliver of the "Daily Show." I interview John Oliver right now.
BRAND: Okay, great.
Mr. JOHN OLIVER (Correspondent, the "Daily Show"): Hello there.
BRAND: Hi, John Oliver.
Mr. OLIVER: Yes, that's John Oliver's greetings.
BRAND: Well, welcome to NPR in your new role as correspondent.
Mr. OLIVER: A correspondent for NPR, that's right. A fake correspondent - under strike conditions - I cannot stress out strongly enough.
BRAND: So let's just say you had to report on this for the "Daily Show." I know you can't do it.
Mr. OLIVER: That's right. That's the whole point, you know, I cannot report on this for the "Daily Show." That is the point. And I can't give you any rye, sideways look at these proceedings, I can only his you with dry facts.
BRAND: But you could do it, maybe off the top of your head, as long as you're not writing anything down, right?
Mr. OLIVER: It was that, yeah. I supposed that's true. So (unintelligible), all of which (unintelligible). We spend years not being sincere about anything, then all of the sudden I think we have found something to be serious about.
BRAND: Okay. So let you be serious for a few minutes here. Tell us why you are on strike or why you're picketing.
Mr. OLIVER: Well, we're on strike here, I guess, to try and move on the negotiations over the Writers Guild contract, which is expired, most particularly (unintelligible) (unintelligible) especially the "Daily Show." You don't see our clips on YouTube and yet you do see them with advertising splashed all over them on the Internet. So, clearly, revenue's being collected, but writers aren't receiving any of that. So that's why we're here.
BRAND: So I don't think a lot of people realize that when they see you and John and it went off from the "Daily Show" and other shows like that, Conan, Jay Leno, that there are a team of writers writing to all those jokes. It's not just the people you see on screen.
Mr. OLIVER: Absolutely, yes. Without the writers there's actually just someone staring awkwardly into a camera. And (unintelligible) five minutes, believe me, that would get old, quickly.
BRAND: Okay, well, John Oliver, let you get back to it. Thank you very much.
Mr. OLIVER: Thank very much.
BRAND: And can you pass the phone back to Margot?
ADLER: Hi there.
BRAND: Margot, who else - describe the scene a little bit more. Who else is there? Is it all writers or other people of people as well.
ADLER: It's writers - there are some entertainers. I saw someone going by from "Law & Order." I couldn't exactly tell, exactly who it was, but I sort of vaguely recognized them. It's mostly writers, though, and some of their supporters and friends. There's a very sort of friendly picket lines. There's a huge rat that's the typical strike rat.
BRAND: The inflatable rat, yeah.
ADLER: The inflatable rat that's literally 10 feet high or whatever, and literally, you can look at the rat and look at the people skating at the Rockefeller Center rink at the same time, and the sort of lines of American flags. And then you've turned your eyes about one centimeter and suddenly you see a million strike signs as people as having fair, fair care and that seems to be like the main demand that they get some percentage of the amounts of money that are beginning to be made in new media.
BRAND: Okay, well, great. Thanks, Margot.
ADLER: Okay. Take care.
BRAND: That's NPR's Margot Adler on the picket line outside Rockefeller Center.
COHEN: One of the genres likely to feel the effects of the strike soon is daytime drama. Soap operas are on daily, so what happens to them when there's a strike? Here with some insight is Sally Sussman Morina. She's written for the soaps for more than 20 years, including as head writer for "Days of Our Lives" and, most recently, for "The Young and the Restless." Welcome, Sally.
Ms. SALLY SUSSMAN MORINA (Writer, Soap Operas): Hi.
COHEN: So soap opera shoot just about everyday, right? The pace is pretty furious, so what does happen when there's a strike?
Ms. MORINA: Well, soap opera shoot at 250 original episodes every year and traditionally, what has happened during the strike is the networks continue to show original episodes. Those original episodes are written by scab writers who come in and write the shows under anonymous names and keep the shows going for the networks. That's been the tradition in prior strikes.
COHEN: So these non-Guild members who decide to write during the strike for the soaps, did they pretty much kill their shot of becoming a Guild writer from then on out?
Ms. MORINA: No, well, traditionally in the past in prior strikes, a number of writers who wrote during the strike, who were not Guild members at the time, subsequently became Guild members and have had quite flourishing careers along the way. This time, the Guild hopes to be able to find out who these people are and ultimately to prevent them from joining the Guild.
There are a number of current Guild members who did get their starts in prior strikes and who are currently working. And, you know, everybody knows who they are and we don't really begrudge them so much, but it does undermine the writers who are on strike.
COHEN: How easily are these writers able to jump in? I mean, some of these shows have been on forever and there are so many twists and turns of plotlines. Can someone just come in and start writing for a show that…
Ms. MORINA: Well, they don't just come in from the cold. It's not like they go out on the street and they say, are you a soap opera fan? Usually, these are people who are connected to the show in some way, either via the network, either via the crew or the production staff.
COHEN: So is this like this secretary at the front desk?
Ms. MORINA: Perhaps. Absolutely. Now these are people that we're talking about who are approached, you know, to make a little bit more money and to write some of these shows and to take a shot at writing.
COHEN: Sally, the last big strike was in 1988. What was the effect then, and what do you see as a potential effect of the writers' strike on soap operas now?
Ms. MORINA: Right. 1988 was a long strike. It was a five-month strike. It took a significant hit on the daytime ratings. What happens is, obviously, when you have scab writers writing a show, the quality suffers substantially and the audience knows that and they start to tune out. Daytime has never recovered from the effects of the '88 strike. But now here we are 20 years later. So now we have daytime in a much more precarious position, rating-wise, than it has ever been in, which puts the daytime writers in a very, very difficult situation, because the soap opera business, as it is right now, cannot really survive and be healthy with a long strike. Especially if viewers defect and don't come back. That's what happened in '88, but it's a much more devastating impact this go-round. And I think that the reason that daytime writers are so nervous and reason that daytime writers, even though we are totally behind the Writers Guild in this go-round, feel nervous because we don't know if we'll have a business when this is all over.
COHEN: And what are the issues that are specific to you as a daytime drama writer? I mean, some of these issues that we've been hearing about, about new media and things like that, do you have the same issues as the rest of the Writers Guild?
Ms. MORINA: Absolutely. This is the first time, in my memory, this is my fourth strike, that the differences between what screenwriters, primetime writers, daytime writers all stand to gain or potentially lose from this strike - were all in this one together. This is the first time - the issues here, new media potentially has an upside for soap opera writers because the ability to write quickly, the ability to write cheaply, the ability to write the type of storylines that might be successful on the Internet - so the daytime writers have a potential new market for their services. In other words, we're in this with the Guild now. There is potential upside for the writers with new media and there is hopefully future work. The current issue is really though if this goes along time, what will the state of the soap opera business be at the end of it.
COHEN: Sally Sussman Morina, thank you so much.
Ms. MORINA: Thank you.