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Showrunners turn strike into a show stopper

Showrunners, those folks whose job it is to make sure a production is on time, under budget and top notch, have walked out with the writers, all but bringing Hollywood to a halt.
/ Source: msnbc.com contributor

Rhetoric has turned into rage. Negotiations are over, deader than the unfortunate saps caught in the wrong place at the wrong time in the opening moments of every “Six Feet Under” episode.

The first question in Hollywood these days isn’t “What’s your Oscar movie?” but, rather, “Whose side are you on?”

Almost a week into the melee, the most surprising aspect of the walkout is how acrimonious it’s become. Writers have always felt like the ugly stepchildren in town, and they have a good point.

Nobody comes out of a George Clooney movie saying, “Geez, that’s the best script I’ve heard in years” nor are people watching “Grey’s Anatomy” because of Patrick Dempsey’s alliteration when spooning with Ellen Pompeo.

Sure, casting is vital to any film or TV success but the written word is where it’s at. A TV series could have 100 Clooneys and Dempseys but if what they’re saying is gibberish, nobody’s going to care. And showrunners, those folks whose job it is to make sure the production is on time, under budget and top notch in quality, know it too.

You see, most showrunners came to TV as writers. If they’re lucky enough to have their script turned into a pilot and then the show is picked up by a network, they often are told by the studios that they’re now in charge. Of everything.

So someone who wrote a 23-minute sitcom script is now suddenly in charge of casting, weekly production schedules, hiring a writing staff and dealing with studio and network executives, among countless other things. But, at heart, they still consider themselves writers first and foremost, and that’s why they’ve decided to walk the picket lines this week with their fellow scribes, infuriating the networks and studios sitting on the other side of the bargaining table.

The show won't go onThe Alliance of Motion Picture & Television Producers knew the showrunners wouldn’t do any writing while a strike was on, but figured they could edit episodes, talk to the actors on set, deal with monetary issues — non-writing concerns that would keep TV productions on track as best as possible.

Wrong. Showrunners were quick, and smart, to realize that they need to walk into that writers’ room after the strike is resolved and weren’t about to stab their friends and colleagues in the back. They feel passionate about the importance of writing and aren’t about to do anything to jeopardize that relationship with their fellow writers.

Plus, the AMPTP were naïve to not realize that rewriting sitcom dialogue continues right up through taping in front of a studio audience, and that was never going to happen.

So no showrunner means no production. Hence, we’ve now seen the set doors closing quickly on “24,” “The Office,” “Family Guy,” “Back to You,” “The New Adventures of Old Christine,” “Grey’s Anatomy” and “Til Death” (though that might actually be fortunate). Everyone knew shows would eventually shut down, just not this fast.

As a matter of fact, not only is “24” suspending production but Fox just canceled its January premiere date. There’s no new start date because Fox execs don’t want to stop the season in mid-stream and halt any momentum, which would inevitably alienate viewers.

And how has the AMPTP responded to this somewhat unexpected showrunner-Writers Guild unity? By firing the staffs of the showrunners’ production companies on the lots around town, turning off their phone lines and disconnecting their e-mail. Well, at least they’re handling it like adults, eh?

Now both sides are more entrenched than ever, with little resolution in sight. The writers are thinking that with production stoppages occurring sooner rather than later, the AMPTP will be frightened that they’ll have nothing but reality to air in a few weeks and will cave.

With holidays approaching ...Producers, on the other hand, will let writers stew about not having a paycheck as the holidays approach and are hoping they’ll reconsider coming back to work.

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Even before several series turned off the lights, the effects of the strike have been seen nightly. The late-night talk shows immediately launched into repeats, as the writers from the staffs of David Letterman, Conan O'Brien, Jay Leno and Craig Ferguson are all under the WGA contract. And HBO just canceled the final episode of "Real Time With Bill Maher." (For some reason, writers from daytime talkers such as “Live With Regis and Kelly” are allowed to work.)

The late-night repeats have an effect in the movie world as well. Ever notice that guests on Thursday and Friday nights are often chatting about their latest film releases that weekend? It’s all part of a studio’s publicity campaign and if the couch is closed to actors promoting their movies, studio coffers could take a dip.

There was talk that as the midnight deadline approached Nov. 4, both sides were closing in on a possible deal. Some are angry that the writers walked when a contract could’ve been hammered out, avoiding all this tumult.

But much of the blame could also be put on the AMPTP for implementing a resolution to lower residuals to writers, knowing the plan would never fly and only infuriate the other side. There’s nothing more important to a writer than residual checks, especially in a town where one moment you’re king and the next you’re a has-been. Many a story has been told — no less than by “Desperate Housewives” creator Marc Cherry — about how those residuals can mean the difference between paying the mortgage one month or having to sell your house.

So here we are. Shows are halting in midseason and writers are picking up picket signs rather than checks. Get used to it. As bad as it is now, it could get even uglier.

Stuart Levine is a managing editor at Variety. He can be reached at .