H’w’d stop signs

Labor pains get closer for nervous biz

As Europe copes with foot-and-mouth disease, Hollywood is battling its own affliction: the FOS virus, or fear of strike.

As one sign, no date has been set for the resumption of talks between the Writers Guild of America and the Alliance of Motion Picture & Television Producers. As another, the Screen Actors Guild remains fraught with internal discord. In the latest bit of SAG slag, prexy William Daniels ripped top exec John McGuire for sandbagging him about an internal investigation.

Viacom COO Mel Karmazin, meanwhile, offered an unsettling view from the executive suite. In a Q-and-A session Wednesday with pundit George Stephanopoulos sponsored by the Hollywood Radio and Television Society, Karmazin said there is a “grave chance there will be a strike.”

Despite voicing some concern about the long-term effects, Karmazin darkly predicted that the very nature of television could be transformed.

“If I wrote scripts, I would be worried that if America is exposed to more reality programming, they might wind up liking it better,” Karmazin said.

With the distraction of awards season now past, writers, actors, directors and below-the-line workers are increasingly prone to panic. As more and more executives calmly declare that they can easily withstand a long strike, the pestilential spread of FOS is accelerating — especially in the TV world.

Oddly, primetime is no longer the chief area of concern.

Instead, the focus is on fringe periods such as late-night, where talk mavens Jay Leno and David Letterman are weighing their decisions.

“We’re planning for shows as if there will be no strike. As events unfold, we’ll decide more when we know more,” said “Late Show with David Letterman” exec producer Maria Pope.

Leno says “The Tonight Show’s” on-air presence during a strike depends a lot on the position of the WGA leadership.

“I’m a union member, and I’ll do whatever my union wants me to do,” the host told Daily Variety, noting that he’s always respected picket lines in the past.

Neither the Leno nor Letterman camp will discuss it publicly, but some latenight sources say that in the event of a prolonged strike, both shows could seek waivers that would give the union blessing to go back on the air.

Whether or not there is a strike, the networks are sticking with Plan B: downplaying scripted comedies and dramas, and going full throttle on reality-TV and news programs. All six network entertainment honchos say they have enough programming to last well into the first quarter of 2002.

Most of those projects are unscripted reality series featuring non-pro casts. But many current series, such as Fox’s “That ’70s Show,” have agreed to produce additional episodes for fall.

And some producers with fall series commitments, such as Dick Wolf and his third “Law & Order” installment for NBC (this time subtitled “Criminal Intent”), have begun production in order to wrap before a strike.

ABC execs are particularly ready for a strike: The “Who Wants to Be a Millionaire” network only programs about seven hours of original, scripted series a week.

Even on the cable side, execs seem OK with Plan B. For example, an HBO spokeswoman said that, thanks to production scheduling, the only HBO original series likely to be hit by a strike is “Sex and the City.”

And basic-cabler Comedy Central, which has a lot of original programming, is not sweating any strike delays. “The Daily Show With Jon Stewart” and “Win Ben Stein’s Money” are unaffected; they’re not WGA or SAG shows. Other shows such as “South Park” and “The Man Show” are unaffected due to production skeds.

In daytime, there’s good news for soap opera fans. Story lines are developed far in advance, so even if the scribes go on strike, producers, actors and execs will pitch in to create dialogue. And sudser stars are covered under AFTRA’s network code pact, so they would be unaffected by a strike by SAG.

All this complacency is unsettling to many in Hollywood. Perhaps even more upsetting is the idea that some people may look forward to a strike.

“A strike would be a good way for studios to get rid of unproductive vanity deals with actors, directors and producers,” noted a tenpercenter.

All sides seem ready for a strike — the Writers Guild of America, the Screen Actors Guild and the Alliance of Motion Picture & TV Producers — though it’s not clear how much is genuine strike readiness and how much is saber-rattling.

In recent days, studio toppers have sent out a clear message: There’ll be no “meeting in the middle” with the Writers Guild.

Management said the writers’ proposal would cost them a “catastrophic” $1.6 billion over three years — is spread over all entertainment union contracts. The WGA put the figure at $450 million.

“We could not meet in the middle and have an acceptable deal,” said DreamWorks principal Jeffrey Katzenberg, echoing comments made two weeks earlier WGAW prez John Wells and exec director John McLean.

CEOs’ assertion that the writers will have to give the most ground have deepened fears of back-to-back strikes by the WGA after its May 2 contract expiration and by the Screen Actors Guild when its contract ends June 30.

Charles Slocum, WGA West’s director of strategic planning, says the studios are overplaying the impact on showbiz from a possible recession. Video revenues last year soared 20%, he noted.

While TV’s panic level seems to be on the rise, the film side is dealing with its own headaches.

Actors are scrambling to quickly pile on projects, with even Oscar-winners expressing fear that they may never work again. Studio execs are twitching, because agents and managers have stopped calling.

Pre-strike slates are full and locked in; there’s little wiggle room at this point. So, with nothing else to do, film production execs are rifling through their old files, looking for projects for 2002, after the strikes have ended. “Terminator 3,” with helmer Jonathan Mostow newly attached, is one of many high-profile pics whose start is pegged to labor peace.

Studios also are fretting about a contingency plan if the Screen Actors Guild bars stars from promoting their summer films. SAG has thus far been mum on its plans on the promo front.

Summer pics and all of the scheduling and marketing that go into them are one of the industry’s most sacred cows, as May-August box office accounts for roughly 45% of major studios’ annual total.

On the independent front, nearly 200 producers have sought waivers to continue production if SAG goes on strike.

SAG’s national board is expected to issue a policy decision on the waiver question this weekend in Los Angeles.

SAG has typically “floated” interim deals during previous strikes, with producers agreeing either to terms of the union’s final offer at the bargaining table or to terms of the final settlement between SAG and the AMPTP. During last year’s strike against advertisers, SAG signed more than 2,000 such deals.

Should SAG grant film-TV waivers, it could open the door for top-line talent to work on projects during the strike with independents who are not signatory to the AMPTP agreement.

The WGA has also not yet decided if it will issue interim deals.

As one agent put it, “No one is willing to lose their house over a strike.”

(Josef Adalian, Paula Bernstein, John Dempsey, Timothy M. Gray, Melissa Grego and Michael Schneider contributed to this report.)

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