Showrunners caught in middle

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Strike Zone: Latest on WGA talks

Perhaps no group of industry professionals faces the writer-studio standoff with greater internal conflict and angst than do television writer-showrunners. They are trying to navigate a perilous path between allegiance to the guild that protects them and commitment to the series that they oversee and often also create.

It comes down to nagging questions of responsibility vs. conscience, and there appears to be no easy answers as the walkout unfolds. Should writer-showrunners cross the WGA picket line to report for work, knowing they leave themselves open to disciplinary action --including termination -- from their production company if they don't?

"We're caught in a very tough spot," admits Carter Bays, co-creator and executive producer with Craig Thomas of the CBS comedy "How I Met Your Mother." "We really are right smack at the intersection of unsolvable forces that we care about very much."

Then there are the gray areas that have the DGA, WGA and the studios squabbling. How much of their producing duties can showrunners perform without it bleeding over into writing territory? Does editing for time count as writing? Does working from home count the same as working in the office? Bays says he has also seen no clear line yet drawn on the concept of what beyond script rewrites constitutes writing.

"So much of what takes place on the set and in the editing room constitutes writing, including creating jokes while in editing," he said. "So if you're editing, you have to shut off the creative part of that process."

Several of TV's top showrunners on Friday expressed building anguish and uncertainty at the road immediately ahead.

Greg Berlanti, who executive produces three ABC series and runs one of them, freshman "Eli Stone," notes that while he doesn't intend to cross any picket lines, "there's still the concern about what you can and cannot do to keep your young show afloat. You hope you have the right support system in place to keep cutting episodes, but one of the open questions is whether cutting for time is still considered writing. I'm not sure where I land on that myself, to be honest. I mean, no one would cringe more than the writers if we're forced to shoot material that's not ready."

Less conflicted on the editing issue is Shawn Ryan, creator-executive producer for FX's "The Shield" and exec producer of CBS's "The Unit," who serves on the WGA negotiating committee.

"I consider live editing to be writing," he said. "There are certain things I will do to fulfill my (production) duties. But a lot of what I do is writing. And I see myself as a writer first."

"Scrubs" creator-exec producer Bill Lawrence also sees himself as a writer first, a producer second.

"I may make some cuts on episodes, but if I do, it'll be from home so I never cross any picket lines," he said. "I'll make sure I don't show up and break any rules."

Things are even more complicated for Tim Kring, creator-executive producer of NBC's sci-fi drama "Heroes," which has four episodes in various stages of production that he hopes to complete despite the strike. It will bring the series to 11 completed installments for the season and fresh episodes through mid-December.

"For me, the primary issue is crossing the picket line in order to do my job," Kring stresses. "To date, I have not fully decided how I'm going to handle it. It depends on my reaction on the day I have to drive in. And no, I don't have the blessing of my studio not to cross the WGA picketers. It's a very tough position to be in."

While he won't do any rewrites, Kring believes he has the freedom to "fulfill all production duties that don't involve writing," including giving notes on cuts. "You can't add words, but you can cut for time," he said.

"House" exec producer Katie Jacobs won't make any decisions on what she would do production-wise until there are more detailed guidelines.

"There is so much gray area right now that we're just waiting until we get clarification on what's right to do and what's wrong to do during a strike," she says. "It's new territory for all of us."

James Duff, creator-executive producer of TNT's hit drama "The Closer," isn't slated to commence production on the show's fourth season until the end of February, but he already has his "do's" and "don'ts" in place should the WGA walkout stretch into 2008.

"We should be permitted, as writer-producers, to mix and edit a show as long as there's no ADR (dubbing) required," he says. "A director can also shoot establishing shots. But we can't do any rewrites or cutting for time. The pencils are down. We've taken that pledge. We also can't sell anything we've written because there has to be a limit to what we can do in a situation like this. We can't nudge and wink and say, 'Well, there's a strike on, but...'. It's either a strike or it's not a strike. And as long as it is one, we had best put strict limits on what it is we can do. Otherwise, it's just a charade."
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