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Scribes, producers back at it

Writers, AMPTP meet; deal not expected

Showbiz writers return to the bargaining table today after a weeklong recess, amid expectations that their current stalemate with studios and networks will continue.

Observers hold out little hope that the Writers Guild of America and the Alliance of Motion Picture & Television Producers will reach an agreement soon, on either the one-year deal sought by the WGA or the AMPTP’s three-year proposal.

Talks will restart today at 10 a.m. at AMPTP headquarters. The WGA asked for the break in order to lift the monthlong news blackout and consult with members.

But even though the WGA agreement expired May 2, insiders doubt either side will escalate the conflict: Studios and nets are reluctant to lock out writers, and the WGA has shown no inclination yet toward asking its members for a strike authorization vote.

Some observers contend the companies have become frustrated by the ongoing instability at the guild and impatient with what they perceive as the WGA’s reluctance to begin the give-and-take process needed to reach a deal. Though the AMPTP has yet to make a final offer, the situation could break down if it does so and the WGA rejects it.

But the emerging consensus has been that since both sides are so far apart on so many issues, writers would keep working under terms of the expired contract for the foreseeable future while negotiations continue. Company execs and WGA members alike are dubious over the prospect of a deal being imminent, though some suggest the possibility of an agreement with an 18-month or two-year term.

Studios and nets are loath to give in on the WGA’s one-year offer, since it would give Hollywood’s unions additional clout, since the next WGA contract would expire close to the June 30, 2005, expirations for the DGA, SAG and AFTRA.

WGA West prexy Daniel Petrie Jr. said last week the AMPTP’s last three-year proposal fell short in every key area including health care, DVD and video-on-demand residuals and jurisdiction over reality TV and animation. He also warned that a three-year deal without hikes in DVD and video-on-demand would not be acceptable.

In member meetings Monday, WGA member complaints centered on the AMPTP’s refusal to boost the two-decade-old DVD payout; and its offer of $10.5 million in increased health care contributions after the Guild imposed $42 million in benefit and eligibility cuts for members last year.

The AMPTP has contended during the talks that WGA members are already well-compensated for performance of successful films. They have cited Motion Picture Assn. stats showing that, as of the end of last year, accumulated homevideo/DVD residuals for writers topped $200,000 on 165 of the 531 films released between 1996 and 2000 by MPA members.

Meanwhile, the WGA stalemate hasn’t made much of an impact yet at the nets, where execs are feverishly planning their fall schedules.

Even if there isn’t a tentative deal in place — a likely scenario at this point — the networks still plan to unveil their lineups in New York next week as planned. Net execs will likely avoid spelling out their strike contingency plans, given that few still expect a strike.

“There’s a lot of posturing going on, but I can’t imagine (a work stoppage),” one network topper said.

Indeed, webheads point out that the chief sticking issue seems to be DVD residuals, something the networks have no involvement with or control over. And the nets still believe that, should a strike actually materialize, they’ll be able to vamp in the fall with a mix of reality skeins, newsmagazines, specials and repeats of popular shows until the issues are resolved.

“It’s not the end of the world for us,” an exec said.

(Michael Schneider in Los Angeles contributed to this report.)

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