CBS cancels Democratic debate

Candidates deterred by picketers

Hollywood received a welcome bit of good news on Wednesday as the striking scribes and the majors agreed to a fourth day of closed-door contract talks — a previously unplanned session — for today.

In another development, Barbara Brogliatti is moving from her slot as top spokeswoman for the Alliance of Motion Picture and Television Producers into a senior adviser role. Industry sources said the AMPTP member congloms are expected to move to significantly beef up their PR contingent in the next few days in the face of public opinion polls and other indicators that the scribes have a big advantage over the studios in the PR war over the strike thus far.

Also Wednesday, the threat of another WGA work stoppage — this time by CBS newswriters — put the kibosh on CBS News’ plan to host a Democratic presidential debate on Dec. 10.

Hopes for an end to the strike received a boost late Wednesday with the news that another day of negotiations had been scheduled. Move was not entirely surprising, given growing pressures on both sides to end the work stoppage.

Neither side lifted its news blackout as the strike wrapped its 24th day.

Brogliatti had come aboard at the AMPTP earlier this year, after retiring to the Napa Valley in 2005 from a 15-year career at Warner Bros. She and AMPTP’s Jesse Hiestand had been handling PR chores and formed a PR committee of West Coast reps to address the fast-growing workload once the WGA struck.

It’s believed that Brogliatti, who wasn’t immediately available for comment, informed AMPTP prexy Nick Counter over the weekend that she wanted to step back from day-to-day responsibilities.

Rumors continued to float through the town that both sides have agreed to the outlines of a deal, but most labor observers believe the new-media issues remain a serious impediment to reaching a settlement. The two sides returned to the table Monday following extensive backchannel efforts by leading agents and TV showrunners, leading to speculation that a compromise could be hammered out on thorny issues such as how to compensate scribes for use of streaming video — even though the AMPTP had proposed a six-week promotional window while WGA leaders had derided that number and said a three-day window would be acceptable.

It’s believed that CEOs with heavy TV involvement — such as CBS’ Leslie Moonves — are among the toppers pushing for a deal sooner rather than later in order to salvage the current TV season and to make a decent stab at getting pilots shot.

However, paying writers for digital downloads may be a major stumbling block since that’s a key issue for film studios, which are less vulnerable to the pressures created by a strike. The AMPTP is seeking to retain the current formula, which mirrors the DVD rate of 0.36%, while the WGA wants a boost to 2.5%.

The cancellation of the Dec. 10 presidential debate had been looming in recent days as Democratic presidential candidates Hillary Clinton, Barack Obama and John Edwards all said they would not cross WGA newswriter picket lines to participate in the debate.

“CBS News regrets not being able to offer the Democratic presidential debate scheduled for Dec. 10 in Los Angeles,” the news division said in an announcement issued Wednesday afternoon. “The possibility of picket lines set up by the WGA and the unwillingness of many candidates to cross them made it necessary to allow the candidates to make other plans.”

The WGA hasn’t set a strike date for the 500 CBS employees it covers. WGA East spokeswoman Sherry Goldman said Wednesday that starting the strike on Dec. 10 was a possibility, but she emphasized that a final decision had not been made.

The Democratic National Committee said Wednesday that there were no plans to reschedule the debate, which was to be held in Los Angeles at CBS Television City with CBS News anchor Katie Couric moderating.

CBS news staffers have worked for over two years without a contract, and no negotiations have taken place for nearly a year. Earlier this month, more than 80% of those casting ballots gave the WGA backing to call a strike at any time.

Following the cancellation announcement, the WGA and CBS took potshots at each other. The guild said it regretted the move but CBS could have avoided the problem had it been willing to negotiate. “Instead, CBS chose to make a decision that stifles the democratic process,” the WGA said.

CBS fired back by saying it had asked the WGA two weeks ago to suspend picketing for a couple of hours on Dec. 10 so the debate could go on.

“Our request was met with silence,” CBS said. “Their statement today clearly misrepresents an attempt to have a civil discourse with the guild so that this event of national importance could proceed.”

The WGA continued picketing in New York and Los Angeles on Wednesday. In New York, about 250 guild members and supporters picketed in front of Time Warner Center/Time Warner Studios, with Tina Fey and Nora Ephron in attendance; in Los Angeles, the guild maintained its picket lines at most major lots.

The Intl. Affiliation of Writers Guilds also staged protests Wednesday as part of an “International Day of Solidarity” in Berlin, Montreal, Toronto, Paris, Amsterdam, London, Sydney, Auckland, Madrid and Mexico City.

The WGA said the Federation of Scriptwriters in Europe has announced it’s mobilizing its 22 member guilds to support the WGA.

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