Showrunners don't run from the picket lines


One of the more unanticipated aspects of the now 5-day-old WGA strike is that it isn't just writers walking the picket line. It's actors. And directors. And members of unaffiliated trade unions. And -- not least -- TV showrunners, both writer-producers and just plain producers who have demonstrated their solidarity with the scribes despite boasting multimillion-dollar contracts with these same studios who have gone to war with their writing staffs.

The showrunners have shown their unity in trade ads, in group photo ops and wherever picketers gather, chanting "How much you earnin', Peter Chernin?" (answer: about $42.5 million in 2006 with stock options and bonuses) right along with their storytelling brothers and sisters.

Somehow, we don't believe that the high rollers of the television industry would risk their relative fortunes to stand tall against the people who made them rich in going to bat for the guild rank-and-file have-nots. Yet there they are, their support for the strike seemingly intensifying by the day while their shows shutter production at a rate that will leave close to zero scripted programs still shooting by Thanksgiving.

Yet even in this environment of hanging together (so as not to hang separately), few showrunners are as outspoken in their disdain for the seeming intransigent position of the AMPTP as James Duff.

Duff -- creator-exec producer for TNT's "The Closer" -- maintains that this isn't just a run-of-the-mill dispute where both sides need to find a way to meet in the middle and get back to work.

"The real story is that the companies have flat out refused to negotiate," Duff charges. "They demanded a strike, basically, by refusing even to use the word 'Internet' in a sentence. It's downright offensive. They don't seem to care about who suffers or how much so long as they get to keep every penny of value on streaming media and downloads and not share it with the people who created their product."

This isn't nearly as complicated an issue as the companies have tried to make it seem, Duff believes. "(Warner Bros. TV president) Peter Roth and I could settle this over lunch," he says. "Everyone knows that reruns are disappearing from TV and going online.

"The series 'Lost' has never had a single repeat broadcast air on ABC, so those writers get no residuals. But no writer has received a single residual for an Internet download to date. What the WGA has proposed is only about getting a tiny sliver of that pie. And the six conglomerates refuse even to discuss it."

As the entertainment business now faces what's shaping up as a drawn-out, dispiriting battle, Duff warns that the producer side has perhaps underestimated the potential damage. For one thing, he doesn't believe television can survive a long strike in its current form.

"The companies can't screw around much longer or we'll end up not only strangling the current TV season in its crib but aborting the season after that as well," Duff asserts. "By the time they wrap their minds around what they've done, the content distribution system as it currently stands will be falling apart. Believe me, what happened to the music business could happen to broadcast TV and the studios."

Duff continues: "If this thing stretches long enough, you'll see Paramount become a giant rental facility and turned into condos. Once it's all been settled, people might not be sitting in front of their TV waiting for us. But unless the studios get struck over the head by the sanity fairy, I doubt they'll be able to see how dangerous this really is."