Big Apple turns to Big Grapple

Strikes have brought city's bustling biz to a crawl

NEW YORK -- Labor disputes have wrought what just a few months ago was unthinkable in contemporary New York: slowing the city's hard-charging entertainment industry.

From live theater to taped sitcoms, the biz in the Big Apple has been on an upward curve by nearly every metric during the past several years.

Broadway saw record receipts of $939 million last year, while New York film television production soared to more than 34,000 shooting days, easily the best in its history. Four late-night shows, network sitcoms like "30 Rock," cable series like "Damages" and countless movie shoots now call the city home.

But two strikes, though executed for different reasons and assuming different shapes, have managed to take the city to the same place: nowheresville.

On Monday, with 27 Broadway shows shut down by the Local One walkout, a spooky quiet settled above pockets of Times Square normally filled with carnival-style noise. The mood matched the stillness at the Ed Sullivan Theater and other venues around the city, where late-night shows in November are usually in full effect.

And if the soundstages at Steiner, Kaufman and Silvercup studios still hummed with business, that only obscured the day when the well of scripts runs dry and the lights go dim, at least on television productions.

Throw in a potential walkout later this week by CBS News writers and you have a city throwing more strikes than Roger Clemens.

The short-term economic impact to the city will be significant: about $17 million lost per day because of the Broadway shutdown, and the salaries for an estimated several thousand above- and below-the-line staffers on the city's television shows as a result of the writers walkout. The CBS News dispute could see an additional 500 staffers step away from their jobs.

Most experts agree that the stoppages won't cripple the New York economy, which with roots in advertising, fashion and finance is too diversified to suffer a meaningful hit from the strikes. But the effect on the city's entertainment sector could be more substantial.

"I don't think it will change the structure in the long term. But it will have many consequences in the short term, and it's going to take time to reconstruct the industry," said William Greene, an economics professor at NYU's Stern School of Business who specializes in entertainment. Greene likened the reconstruction period to the time it takes for sports leagues to reclaim fans after a labor stoppage.

The fallout from sports strikes tend to be geographically distributed; the current set of strikes will have its effects concentrated in just a few places, particularly New York.

Without a quick resolution to the stagehand walkout, tourism experts expect some visitors to cancel holiday trips built around theater-going.

On the film and television front, meanwhile, the writers strike could unravel years of progress from Mayor Michael Bloomberg, who has made entertainment production a hallmark of his two terms.

After a steady series of increases, the city's Mayor's Office of Film, Theatre and Broadcasting now has $30 million to give away in tax rebates annually. But if the strike continues, it might not have anyone to give them to.

Bloomberg and insiders at City Hall frequently like to point out that soundstages and city streets are booked to overcapacity (the streets are so crowded with crews that this year "The Bourne Ultimatum" and the Spike Lee pilot "M.O.N.Y." actually wound up shooting the same car crash on a Lower Manhattan street).

But New York entertainment insiders privately fret that for the first time in years there could be space to book at the city's three soundstages. (Reps from Steiner and Silvercup did not return calls for this report.)

The city's cultural capital might be hit as well. One writer on the picket line last week noted that network paychecks kept a number of writers afloat in a pricey city like New York. "If there are no shows to work on, I wouldn't be surprised if some writers either leave the city or leave the industry."

What makes the effects so surprising is that they're caused by a disparate set of factors: the stagehand strike is focused on a set of narrow work-rules disagreements. The writers strike stems from broad and amorphous issues about the future consumption of media.

But if the two diverge in scope, they also might share underlying motivations.

"Even thought the topics of the two strikes are different, they're both being driven by the changing nature of the industries and the increased concentration of ownership," Cornell University labor economist Richard Hurd said. "The view of the conglomerates is that they have to minimize costs and maximize returns, and the unions feel that they're not getting what they deserve. There are moral principles at stake for both."

And moral principles means that the impact could be felt for a long time.