Conflicts, conundrums and collateral damage

Jay Leno doled out doughnuts to the picketers in Burbank; Ellen DeGeneres walked past them, metaphorically anyway, to continue to do her talk show.

If ever there were an image of just how divisive the current work stoppage is, that was it.

Two of the highest-paid talents in TV land taking diametrically opposed actions vis-a-vis the standoff between the WGA and the studio/network conglomerates.

Not surprisingly, perhaps, Leno instantly was hailed as a true mensch, while DeGeneres mostly has taken jabs for being a scab, or indeed for caring more about puppy dogs than hard-pressed scribes.

No doubt there's something positive to be said for either approach: the late-night comedian making the point that this is not about A-listers like himself but about the working stiffs who are the backbone of the industry; the daytime gabber saying she was sticking to her contract with the 600-odd stations that air her show — and keeping her staff and crew employed.

In any case, it's been mostly the TV types who have gone out on a limb one way or the other, including some two dozen showrunners who have opted to close down their ongoing scripted series in a show of support for the writers.

And it is a limb: What if the networks discover that nonscripted shows bring in just two-thirds of the audience a drama does but that they cost on average $750,000 an hour rather than $1.5 million an episode for a drama? The balance of programming could shift inexorably toward the nonscripted option for years to come.

As for collateral damage, assistants to people in just about every part of the industry are the ones taking the brunt so far, as well as employees of the 20-odd shows that already have shut down.

Few would dispute that the wider-expressed sympathies of the community and the public at large tilt toward the writers. "Who wants to publicly say they're for the conglomerates?" is how one political consultant put it to me.

In fact, a Pepperdine survey suggested that a whopping two-thirds of the public felt that the scribes have a good case for demanding more money in residuals.

A day later, an internationally funded financial report surfaced suggesting that the studios' profit margins really are — as studio bosses have been claiming for several years — well, razor-thin, and more pertinently, that one of the chief reasons for that is the inordinate fees creamed off the top of film revenue and TV license fees by star talent. (Rising production costs and shrinking DVD sales also play a part.) Per the Screen Digest report, studios paid out about $2.5 billion in gross participation fees in 2006 and about $500 million in residuals. Apparently, the participation fees have been rising year-over-year at a far greater clip than residuals.

While the writers have not ceased for a minute to megaphone their message to whomever will listen, the studio chieftains have remained mostly mum, so far resisting the opportunity to seize upon parts of the Screen Digest report with an "I told you so."

What the studios have been doing is making overtures to (or receiving them from?) the DGA, a guild that historically has been easier and quicker to bargain with and whose contract expires June 30, along with that of SAG. Were those talks with helmers to jump the queue, the writers — and the town — might be left high and dry for months on end. We'll all need more than doughnuts.