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Studios stockpile shows ahead of possible strike

Hollywood studios are speeding production on movies and TV shows, preparing for a possible strike by writers and more trouble next year when contracts with actors and directors expire.

TV networks, which are in the midst of planning fall schedules, also might pack their lineups with more reality shows and other unscripted fare as protection against a possible strike.

“It’s simply sound business,” said J. Nicholas Counter, president of the Alliance of Motion Picture and Television Producers, which negotiates on behalf of the studios.

“Based upon the public statements of the Writers Guild, it’s quite clear these are going to be very contentious negotiations,” he said. “Their statements are bellicose, so we’ve got to prepare for the worst.”

‘It makes us strike proof’
Among the shows accelerating production is NBC’s “Las Vegas,” which started three months earlier than usual with the aim of finishing 18 to 24 episodes before the fall. Normally, the show would have only about seven or eight episodes filmed.

“In essence, it makes us strike proof,” said Gary Scott Thompson, the show’s writer and executive producer and a veteran of the last writer’s strike in 1988.

Another NBC show, “Law & Order: Special Victims Unit” began shooting two months early.

The three-year pact between studios and the Writers Guild of America expires Oct. 31 and talks are scheduled to begin in July.

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That gives both sides little time to resolve complex issues involving how much TV and film writers should be paid when their work is distributed on new media platforms, including the Internet, cell phones, digital media players and other devices. The writers argue the payments — modeled after the structures used for DVD rights — are too low.

Older battles also remain to be resolved, including the revision of a decades-old formula for compensating writers for work that appears on DVD.

‘The guilds pretty much got screwed’“There’s no question in my mind this is not simply about emerging technology, but the perception that the guilds pretty much got screwed in previous negotiations in what were then emerging technologies,” TV writer and producer Steven Bochco said.

“All the guilds feel strongly that they don’t want to be caught in a position that doesn’t anticipate rapidly shifting technological advancements that leave them high and dry.”

Bochco, the Emmy Award-winning creator of such shows as “NYPD Blue” and “Hill Street Blues” is creating a legal drama pilot for TNT. He said the issue of stockpiling always arises as a negotiating tactic.

Both the WGA and Screen Actors Guild elected new leaders after the current contracts were signed who have promised to get tougher with studios.

The WGA, in particular, has led an effort to organize the editors and producers the guild say actually “write” reality TV shows. Several lawsuits have been filed against networks and the union supported a brief strike by about a dozen staff of the show “America’s Next Top Model.”

Share product placement revenues?Actors and writers have also taken a tough stand against the increasing use of product placement in shows, a growing practice as more people zap ads recorded on a TiVo or similar device. The guilds have said their members deserve a piece of the revenue generated by the mention or appearance of products.

The WGA also angered the studios by rejecting a request to start contract talks in January, opting instead to begin meeting in July. That presents a special problem for theatrical film productions, which have a particularly long lead time and could be halted halfway by a strike.

Studios are considering rushing some productions so they finish filming by Oct. 31, or delaying the start of production until next year.

The result is a “de facto” strike, where production is compressed before the contract expiration, leading to a long period of inactivity even after a new pact is reached.

TV landscape changingDespite the rhetoric, there are powerful incentives for both sides to avoid a strike. Network programming is losing viewers and advertisers are spending less on TV and more on the Internet.

Networks have also had success with reality shows such as “Deal or No Deal” and “Dancing With the Stars,” leaving less room on the schedule for scripted shows.

“There is already lot of that kind of programming to fill space with in a worst case scenario,” said Carolyn Finger, vice president of TVtracker.com, an Internet-based consulting firm.

The last time writers struck was in 1988, a bitter five-month walkout.

In 2001, studios also stockpiled scripts and accelerated production in anticipation of a strike. While a walkout was averted, thousands of technicians, carpenters and people who service the entertainment industry were out of work because of the de facto strike.

Bochco said a strike this year could be extremely difficult because TV and film operations represent a small part of the income earned by the huge conglomerates that own studios and networks.

“When you strike, you’re not striking Universal or Paramount, or NBC,” Bochco said. “You’re striking News Corp. You’re striking Viacom Inc., You’re striking General Electric Co. Those are much deeper pockets and those are companies that can afford to hold out for a far longer period of time.”

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