Strike rewrites rules, jams up showrunners

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Last Monday morning, production on Fox's high-profile drama pilot "The Oaks" began in Pasadena. It was a big day for playwright-turned-TV scribe David Schulner; "Oaks" is his first pilot. But he, along with showrunner Shawn Ryan, were nowhere near the set that morning. Instead, they were on the picket line, because as of 12:01 a.m. that day, they were on strike.

"Oaks" is one of about two dozen pilots greenlighted by the broadcast networks, a far cry from the 100 or so produced by the five broadcast networks every year. And, with less than a quarter of the drama and just a fraction of the comedy pilot scripts in, that could be about it for this cycle if the writers strike lasts for months.

"One good thing that might come out of a strike ... it would give us an excuse to shake things up," Fox's Kevin Reilly said last month, referring to the archaic development model that cramps the production of all pilots within three months.

NBC already is shaking things up. It is teaming with producing companies outside the studio system, such as Lionsgate and U.K.'s Power, handing them 13-episode production orders and international rights in exchange for high-end drama product for a fraction of the cost. While this is a business model developed to provide year-round original programming, its implementation certainly was spurred by the strike.

The deal with Power for "Robinson Crusoe" is particularly significant as it marks the first time in 45 years that a British company has produced a scripted series for a U.S. broadcast network.

Just like the dollar has been sliding against the euro, U.S. studios and talent have been losing ground to Europeans, and strikes by the Hollywood guilds can only accelerate that.

The new drama series this year are dominated by British actors. Branches of such European companies as FremantleMedia, BBC Worldwide, Endemol and RDF already rule reality broadcast programming; now they're entering the scripted arena.

While "Crusoe" will be developed by an American writer, such British-produced series probably would employ more U.K. writers than a normal U.S. show would. And the longer a strike goes on, the more such arrangements with oversees producers could pop up as the networks start hurting for original scripted programming.

Getting British writers to pen U.S. comedy series would be tougher, as humor is the hardest to translate. But the networks might already have another solution in case the writers strike continues. "There are some great kids at USC," a top network executive told me recently.

Meanwhile, the writers are struggling to get their message across. They are perceived as white-collar millionaires (which is true for a fraction of them). While grocery store workers picket in front of supermarkets -- a relatable place that people go to all the time -- writers march at studio lots. Maybe writers should go to people's homes and stand in front of their TVs. But even then, many people wouldn't notice them since they don't watch TV shows on TV, which is one point of the strike.

That brings us back to the past week, which has been especially heart-wrenching for the hyphenates who were torn among their allegiance to the guild, their commitment and love for their shows and their contractual obligation to their employers. Such creator-showrunners as Shonda Rhimes and Greg Daniels got up at the crack of dawn to sabotage their own shows to help bring the strike to an end. Ryan had to miss the filming of the final episode of his signature show, "The Shield." No writer should have to do that.

As for Schulner, if he gets the itch to write in between picket shifts, he could go back to playwriting. And if he decides to pen one about the strike, he can borrow the title of one of his old plays: "An Infinite Ache."
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