Public face key as strike goes forward

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NEW YORK -- As a hundred strikers gathered at Rockefeller Center in the chilly New York morning Monday, the striking Seth Meyers of "Saturday Night Live" could be seen turning to the WGA East spokeswoman and mouthing the words, "Let me know if you need anything."

It was a telling moment for a guild whose media strategy has both shied away from and desperately needed a public face.

With both WGA branches taking heat for their reticence in responding to the Alliance of Motion Picture & Television Producers, the guilds have staked out, depending on one's point of view, either the moral high ground or dangerously shy territory. As one publicity expert said, "Are you better off engaging with your opponents' accusations or staying above them?"

In the writers strike of 2007, the public relations battle -- what WGA East president Michael Winship calls the bid to avoid the stereotype of "scribes in Malibu" -- might be just as important as the struggle going on at the negotiating table.

"Our goal is to make sure people realize this is about the future of entertainment and how writers are paid for that entertainment, not about a rich entity against a richer entity," "Brothers & Sisters" creator Jon Robin Baitz said of the strike's media aims.

Support among the press is critical to striking writers as they try to gain leverage and public support.

At the moment, the writers have enjoyed a certain amount of goodwill, with bits lampooning management on shows like "SNL," "The Daily Show With Jon Stewart" and "Late Show With David Letterman."

But as the strike wears on and writers no longer control the airwaves, they will need to find another way to make their case to the public. In most strikes, a prolonged stoppage tends to create indifference if not a backlash against the strikers.

And that's where the voices might come in, which the guild might get even if it has chosen to stay quiet.

A WGA East rep said that the guild didn't ask "30 Rock" hyphenate Tina Fey to stand for interviews in front of her employer's offices.

But such figures as Meyers, Fey and Eva Longoria Parker -- who Tuesday offered sympathy and food when picketers protested on the "Desperate Housewives" set -- are poised to turn into the strike's poster children, much as Letterman did nearly 20 years ago.

Like the late-night star, the personalities have something most writers don't: a profile that viewers can recognize, and perhaps identify with.

While the guild officially has frowned upon on-the-record interviews, the reaction has varied by studio lot.

At Fox, interviews were hard to come by, but things were friendlier at Warner Bros. and Paramount, where figures like Jeff Garlin were cordially giving interviews.

In New York, informal news conferences seemed to be happening up and down the picket line, with outlets from CNN to the New York Times lobbing questions at writers and filmmakers like writer-director Peter Hedges ("Dan in Real Life"), who noted the irony of having a movie in theaters at the same time he stood protesting the company that released it.

One of the biggest faces has been prominent through his absence. Jon Stewart has yet to make an appearance on a picket line but has attracted attention thanks to a rumor, since denied, that he was covering the salaries of his staff for two weeks as well as a making a closing dig at the AMPTP before he left the air last week.

While viewers could blame the stars if a strike continues, others say the resentment could be channeled back to the producers. "Networks have done poorly on the basis of bad ratings and low levels of viewership when they were trying their best," said brand and imaging expert Robert Passikoff of New York-based Brand Keys. "What do you think is going to happen when they can't provide their best?"

Paul J. Gough and Kimberly Nordyke in Los Angeles contributed to this report.
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