Producers caught in the strike zone

'The Shield' creator admits to priority dilemma

Now that a strike is a reality, TV’s showrunners are starting to make some tough choices.

“The Shield” creator Shawn Ryan, for example, had figured he’d still do work on that skein and his other projects. But in a much buzzed-about e-mail floating around town Monday, Ryan made it clear he would do no such thing.

“The only thing I can do as a showrunner is to do nothing,” Ryan wrote. “I obviously will not write on my shows. But I also will not edit, I will not cast, I will not look at location photos, I will not get on the phone with the network and studio, I will not prep directors, I will not review mixes. … I can’t in good conscience fight these bastards with one hand, while operating an Avid with the other. I am on strike and I am not working for them. PERIOD.”

Ryan’s letter captures a dilemma facing numerous showrunners — and even a few actors — as the strike becomes a reality.

The vast majority of TV shows are run by producers who double as scribes. The networks are counting on these writer-producers — aka showrunners — to keep things humming on set as work continues on scripts already in the can.

But the WGA has been urging its showrunners to stand down. It held a meeting Saturday at the Sheraton Universal designed to persuade showrunners to stop working immediately. The argument is that the more episodes the nets have in the can, the longer a strike will go.

Then there’s “The Office.” Stars such as B.J. Novak and Mindy Kaling also double as writers. If they want to work on the one or two scripts written before the strike, they’ll have to cross a picket line. On Monday, at least, they chose to stay away from “The Office.”

So what happens if these actors and showrunners continue to not work?

“The official line on all of our shows is we expect you to show up,” said one senior network executive. “We’ve told them that it’s required under their contracts, and they’ll be in breach if they don’t show up.”

But realistically, it seems hard to believe NBC U would go after “The Office’s” hyphenates or that Warner Bros. would sue Chuck Lorre if they opt not to render acting or producing services once a strike begins.

That’s because Hollywood remains a town built on talent relations. As bitter as things could get with a strike, nobody wants to risk alienating key talent further by insisting they cross picket lines.

One top exec producer-showrunner said nets should expect solidarity from scribes.

“Showrunners will not show … all week,” predicted one scribe. “No one likes to leave a crew unsure of whether or not they have work, or assistants wondering where their next paycheck will come from. And no one wants to leave their baby in someone else’s hands. It’s a difficult time. But I will not cross a picket line.”

Still, some showrunners may decide on a compromise by working at home on editing and other non-writing duties. That way, they don’t cross pickets — but they still get the job done.

“It’s a fascinating position these showrunners are put into,” another studio exec said. “From a pure economics standpoint, if they can provide extra scripts, that’s extra fees for a lot of people who need the money. On the other hand, the more episodes we have, supposedly the less pressure there will be on us. But I would think if I were a writer, I’d get as many scripts into shooting position as possible.”

One drama showrunner conceded that most producers were in a bind, especially those trying to launch new skeins.

“It’s incredibly painful to have episodes being shot that you cannot supervise, scripts that will need adjustment that you can’t help and cuts being edited and you’re not in the room shaping,” the producer said. “I’m also worried about what a loss of momentum could do to new shows finding their legs and their audiences. That said, this is bigger than us and may shape the industry for generations to come.”

(Michael Schneider contributed to this report.)

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