Coasts differ in strike coverage

Observers note disparity of NY and LA pickets

Gothamites and Angelenos have their differences, as everyone from Woody Allen to Tupac Shakur has observed.

Seldom have the East and West coasts seemed more distinct, however, than during the writers strike, now in its fifth week.

From the atmosphere on the picket lines to the views in executive suites, the labor snarl has been a tale of two cities, one that gets blaring play in L.A. but has not been front page news in the New York Times. The dichotomy is especially noticeable among the many bicoastal types who shuttle back and forth.

Compared with Hollywood, where seemingly every waiter, hairstylist and P.A. is hustling a script, entertainment in Gotham — especially the narrow slice directly affected by the walkout — is a flyspeck in a city bustling with finance, fashion, publishing and 8 million other stories. Even those who work in other aspects of the biz — say animation or indie film — are trying hard to suppress yawns.

“L.A. is a company town. New York is not,” said one Gotham showbiz insider whose sympathies lie with the AMPTP. “Nobody talks about the strike in New York. It’s just not on the radar here.”

During the first four weeks of the strike, the picket lines have spoken volumes. While film notables such as Terry George, Ron Howard and Robin Williams have shown up at Gotham picket lines to lend support (and their image) to the cause, it’s mostly been a TV crowd, especially latenight writers and comedians. The numbers have been in the 100 to 200 range at a single site. L.A. attracts more than that at each of the city’s sprawling studio gates.

Midtown Manhattan, where the media congloms are based, has been the setting, which is logical but leaves picketers exposed to a steady stream of tourists. Sometimes, that’s been a boon, such as the boisterous day in front of the Disney store on Fifth Avenue, when passing trucks and taxis honked their support and people en route to stock up on “Ratatouille” gizmos paused to hear the spiel.

Among the networks headquartered in N.Y., the one that’s feeling the most immediate pain is Comedy Central, whose two nightly scripted series, “The Daily Show with Jon Stewart” and “The Colbert Report,” are shut down and have no plans to go back on the air during the strike. With the 2008 election campaign about to kick into gear, there’s little doubt execs at the cabler are dying to get Stewart and Colbert back on the air by any means necessary.

The weather, of course, has also been much tougher on Gothamite strikers. On Wednesday, it snowed and the day’s picket session ended about a half-hour before its scheduled 2 p.m. cutoff.

Another observer disagrees with the notion that the strike isn’t being discussed in New York, but said there’s a difference in how it’s talked about.

“It’s the first point of conversation in L.A.,” he said. “In New York, it still comes up, but not necessarily right away.”

That same insider, who regularly travels to both Gotham and L.A., said the halls are quieter on both coasts.

“But in L.A., people are worried about friends who are writers or crew people they know. There’s a more personal connection,” he said. “In New York, not that anyone’s cold about it, but everyone’s more worried about what it means to the business.”

One low-level Gotham showbizzer said most of the people who work at his conglom’s Gotham headquarters aren’t feeling the strike’s impact day-to-day — but that’s only because the strike’s overall impact hasn’t been felt yet on their part of the business.

The psychological impact of the pickets can’t be underestimated.

“In L.A., the only way into the studios is through the gates, and every gate has pickets,” said one Gotham-based observer. “You see them more in L.A. Here, they’re not even covering every entrance at HBO or NBC.”

Even on a good day, the pickets span about one city block, with sign-wavers confined to one lane and surrounded by barricades. One exec described the picketers as “orderly, smiling and pleasant.”

The sun-splashed L.A. picket lines, while a locus of earnest activism, are also more given to spontaneity and expressions of pure enthusiasm. There have been raucous picketing activities geared toward single or gay writers, for example. The biggest Gotham event was a rally in Washington Square Park dominated by union speeches and cameos from politicos. In L.A., about 4,000 strikers marched down Hollywood Boulevard with an exuberance rivaling the Greenwich Village Halloween parade.

“Back to You” creator Steven Levitan, who’s been active in rallying the showrunner community, said the L.A. contingent remains solid, despite the ups and downs of the talks.

“The strength and unity is growing rather than subsiding,” he said. “Everyone’s coming together now even more than a few weeks ago.”

One of the reasons why N.Y. is so out of mind, said another exec, is that the city’s scripted-series production comes to only a fraction of the output churned out by the denizens of L.A. Observers said the hotels in L.A. are underpopulated and it’s easy to get reservations at even the most high-end L.A. restaurants because dozens of production crews are not plying their trade and writer/producer meetings are in abeyance during the strike. Networks and studios have also started freezing expense accounts.

Cable execs are also somewhat more insulated than their broadcast-network brethren because, unless the strike goes on for months, most cable webs will be only minimally affected.

Unless the strike drags out for months, USA Network won’t suffer too much, with a number of “Monk” and “Psych” episodes in the can, as well as a new tongue-in-cheek action series filmed earlier this year called “In Plain Sight,” with Mary McCormack.

Although it can’t put its hit “Army Wives” series back into production for a second season, Lifetime has three original primetime reality series set to kick off early next month: “How To Look Good Naked,” “Top This Party” and “Matched in Manhattan.” Lifetime also has dozens of completed original primetime movies, which it will schedule throughout 2008.

Showtime has finished production on three scripted series for the first quarter: “The L Word,” returning for a fifth season; “The Tudors,” coming back for a second season; and a newcomer, “Tracey Ullman’s State of the Union.”

Children’s TV, long centered in Gotham, has not been hit very hard. “Sesame Street,” which is prepping its 39th season, is covered by a standalone agreement with the Writers Guild, which is in the first of three years.

“Our writers are writing,” said Ellen Lewis, a spokeswoman for Sesame Workshop.

(Dade Hayes in New York contributed to this report.)

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