Hollywood braces for horrifying Halloween

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A specter is haunting Hollywood -- the specter of a writers strike.

Like the boogeyman terrorizing the dreams of the little girl on “Heroes,” the gruesome prospect of a work stoppage gives nightmares to everyone associated with television production these days. And by the way, if a strike is imminent -- as is the general perception -- we probably won’t even find out who that boogeyman is because the “Heroes” season would be cut short.

What a difference two months make. While a strike in January would have a minimal effect -- with 18-episode seasons of the existing series, down only slightly from the regular 22, in the can and all pilot scripts for next season in -- a walkout right after the Oct. 31 deadline would be hugely disruptive.

A long strike would leave viewers with 10-episode seasons of their favorite scripted shows and tons of repeats. The networks have been proactive, urging writers to turn in their pilot scripts -- normally due by year’s end -- before Oct. 31. Still, they’re not expected to get more than 30%-50% of the commissioned scripts by then. If a strike ensues, network execs will have to make their pilot picks from a smaller pool, and hundreds of writers who can’t finish their scripts on time won’t be paid or will be paid only a fraction for their work. A strike longer than six to eight weeks also would trigger the force majeure clause in writers’ overall deals, giving studios free rein to drop expensive pacts.

With so much on the line, none of the working writers I’ve talked to recently said they wanted a strike. (But with a reported 20% representation in the WGA voting membership, they don’t seem to have much say.) The networks and the studios certainly don’t want a strike. So why are we staring down the barrel of a work stoppage as soon as two weeks from now?

The main sticking point in writers’ negotiations with TV networks and studios has been revenue sharing from new media.

I grew up in Bulgaria and was brought up with communist ideals of spreading the wealth equally. So I’m all for sharing, as long as there is much to share.

Aside from sales on iTunes, the networks and studios are yet to monetize the digital platforms, which so far have been used primarily for marketing purposes.

Meanwhile, their main broadcast business is crumbling. No scripted series has been the top Nielsen draw since the end of “Friends.” Ratings for returning series are down by double digits across the board this fall. Yes, factoring in the growing DVR viewing helps offset some of the losses, but that’s not going to impress media buyers who are interested only in commercial ratings. And let’s face it: Not many people TiVo their shows for the commercials.

After bucking the time-shifted viewing trend for years and watching TV live as it was originally intended, I finally surrendered and bought a DVR a week ago. I’ve been skipping commercials ever since. I feel really guilty about it and try to pay attention to the brands while fast-forwarding, but it just makes for a better viewing experience.

One former top network executive who now heads a cable channel recently told me in a conversation that he doesn’t believe the broadcast networks can survive in the current business model where they rely entirely on ad revenue, without fees from cable and satellite providers. To make things worse, the nets will have to sacrifice a chunk of that revenue in the next two years to run digital conversion awareness PSAs.

It is only appropriate that writers’ current contract expires on Halloween, a holiday associated with images of doom and horror. If a strike starts right away, the two sides can keep their “Scream” masks on because a work stoppage is playing mean tricks on everyone involved, with no treats to go around.
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