Showrunners join picket lines

As showrunners rallied en masse Wednesday outside the Disney studio gates, the fallout from the three-day-old Writers Guild of America walkout began impacting some of primetime’s biggest hits, including Fox’s “24″ and “Family Guy” and NBC’s “The Office.”

Producers also continue to turn up the heat on the hyphenates. CBS Paramount Network Television and 20th Century Fox Televison have sent sternly worded breach of contract letters to showrunners who’ve opted not to fulfill their producerial functions this week, threatening lawsuits if they didn’t get back to work.

What’s more, letters state that the studio might sue the scribe for damages as well, if episodes can’t be produced and it suffers monetary losses as a result.

Showrunners weren’t backing down but, after a meeting following the rally, they did appear to come to a consensus to try to use whatever leverage they have to woo studios back to the negotiating table.

For now, they’re staying off the job — and writing is out of the question until a settlement is reached. But, said one showrunner who was at the powwow, “We will gladly return to our (showrunner) jobs the day that the producers return to the negotiating table.”

Move seems designed to send the nets and studios a message: If you start bargaining, we’ll help finish up the scripts we’ve already written. Of course, most shows will run out of scripts in a few weeks, which means the offer has an expiration date.

Hyphenates also vowed to stay unified if the studios decide to sue them for breach. “We pledged that if anyone gets sued for breach, then we’re going to stand by them. We won’t go back to work unless those suits are dropped,” the source said.

Earlier in the week, studios suspended a number of overall deals with both writers and non-writing producers (Daily Variety, Nov. 6). Layoffs are expected to begin as early as Friday. At 20th, assistants to the writer-producer hyphenates were told they would be out of a job at the end of the week — but that their health coverage would continue until the end of the year.

Nonetheless, the showrunners offered up a united front on Wednesday. Today’s Daily Variety carries an ad signed by 400 writers, including some of the biggest names in the biz, who warn fellow scribes not to do anything that might weaken the WGA position or prolong the strike.

On the programming front, Fox said it would delay the planned season premiere of “24″ indefinitely, citing uncertainty over the strike’s duration as the reason (see story, page 1). Time could also be up on Fox’s “Family Guy,” with creator Seth MacFarlane saying the show’s final produced episode — at least with his involvement — is set to air this Sunday. He hinted his relationship with producer 20th Century Fox Television could suffer if the studio uses other talent to finish remaining episodes.

Meanwhile, NBC gave up producing one more episode of “The Office” after key actors on the show failed to come to work. That means that show will be in repeats after Nov. 15.

On the picket lines, the showrunner rally — held in front of the Walt Disney Studios — brought out a who’s who of big name scribes, among them Damon Lindelof and Carlton Cuse (“Lost”), Marc Cherry (“Desperate Housewives”), Shonda Rhimes (“Grey’s Anatomy”), Neal Baer (“Law & Order: SVU”), Carol Mendelsohn (“CSI”), Josh Schwartz (“Chuck”), Shawn Ryan (“The Unit”), Alan Ball (“Six Feet Under”), Greg Daniels (“The Office”) and Joss Whedon (“Buffy the Vampire Slayer”).

Rally was designed to show unity among the guild’s highest-paid members, and to encourage those showrunners undecided about whether to render production services to put down their pens.

“Weeds” creator Jenji Kohan said helping studios complete episodes is like “crossing our own picket line.”

“This is a war against corporate greed, and we’re on the side of right,” she said. “The producers are being completely unreasonable and incredibly greedy and piggish. They’re making enormous amounts of money, and we deserve a share.”

At the rally, former WGA prexy John Wells said he remains willing and able to assist in strike talks, should they resume.

“If I’m asked by my guild, I’ll be happy to,” Wells said.

So far, Wells hasn’t been actively involved in the current standoff. But as a former guild topper and member who has sat on several negotiating committees through the years, Wells said, “There’s no question where my loyalties lie.”

“These issues are very significant,” he said. “The companies are going to have to recognize that 0.3% is not going to fly for Internet revenues.”

Wells said he believed the congloms made “a major miscalculation” in not taking the writers’ concerns over online residuals “seriously” earlier.

“The Guild was very vocal what the issues were,” he said.

“Family Guy” creator-exec producer MacFarlane was another very vocal showrunner at the rally. He maintained that the upcoming episode of “Family Guy” on Sunday is the last fully produced episode in the can.

There are other episodes close to being finished, but MacFarlane has made it clear that he has no plans to help put those segs together. MacFarlane also has another unique bit of leverage: He provides voices for many main characters on the show, and he said he would not step into the studio to record any further.

So couldn’t Fox just go ahead and use other non-WGA producers to wrap things up?

“They could, but it would be unwise,” MacFarlane said. “Because I would be angry.”

Twentieth isn’t saying what it will do.

“Our hope is that he returns to work and completes his non-writing obligations on those episodes,” a spokesperson said.

Losing “Family Guy” in the middle of the November sweeps would be tough for Fox, which counts on the longtime Sunday night staple. It wouldn’t be immediately devastating, however. In a testament to just how strong “Family Guy” is, the show does very well in repeats.

News Corp. prexy Peter Chernin, meanwhile, asserted in an earnings conference call with investors that Fox’s animated skeins were far ahead in script preparation and that the strike could “help growth in market share in Fox Broadcasting.”

Meanwhile, a day after striking WGA members successfully disrupted production of a “Desperate Housewives” location shoot in Toluca Lake, scribes woke up early Wednesday morning to picket outside a “Private Practice” shoot in Malibu.

Strikers were up as early as 4 a.m., in the hopes of preventing Teamsters workers from crossing the picket line. Included in the group were several “Grey’s Anatomy” and “Private Practice” writers, including creator-exec producer Rhimes.

Insiders said some Teamsters honored the line, while others still went inside.

“My concern is the people who work for me, and the writers on the picket line,” Rhimes said. “We all would like to work, and we’d like the studios and the networks to make that happen.”

Rhimes said three or four more episodes are ready to shoot on both “Grey’s Anatomy” and “Private Practice.” The scribe added that she supported her shows but would not cross the picket lines to do any showrunning work on those segs.

“My focus is this. This is the work we’re doing. It’s hard to do both things.”

“Private Practice” exec producer/showrunner Marti Noxon said she was in complete agreement with Rhimes’ decision to not serve as a producer on her shows.

“We’re not even speaking to actors with questions about motivation. It’s radio silence,” she said. “We can’t ask the people who work for us to go without paychecks and then continue to cross the picket line.”

“Ugly Betty” showrunner Silvio Horta, who Tuesday was undecided about whether to fulfill his role as producers, said Wednesday that he had opted to remove himself completely from the process.

That’s what “Brothers and Sisters” and “Dirty Sexy Money” exec producer Greg Berlanti is also doing–at least this week. He said he’s still debating what to do come next week.

“For every episode we produce, writers are going to get paid, and I want my writers to be able to survive,” he said.

“The Office” exec producer Greg Daniels hasn’t worked on the show in any capacity since the strike began, noting that writing plays a role in just about everything a showrunner does.

“All of those decisions have to do with writing,” Daniels said.

And if a showrunner stops, it’s difficult for a series to continue, he added. Indeed, with Daniels and his “Office” mates (including many writer-actor hyphenates) out on the picketline, NBC gave up the ghost and shut down “The Office” Wednesday.

“For a show to keep going without a showrunner, it’s like selling water and white powder and calling it milk,” Daniels said.

With the writers’ grievances centered on Internet residuals, Daniels noted that “The Office” scribes are already well aware of the shift to online media — and what that means to both writers and media corporations.

“We’ve seen the future,” Daniels said. “‘The Office’ has received 7 million downloads. It generates the most traffic at NBC.com. We received a Daytime Emmy for webisodes that no one was paid for. The future is very bright for these companies. The CPMs on Internet ads is double what they are for TV.”

Daniels said he believed the studios were motivated to trigger a strike.

“They know there’s a huge pot of money out there, and if they don’t hsare it the profits will be more for them,” he said.

Scribe also said he was bracing for a suspension letter from “Office” producer NBC Universal.

“Since the show is down, I don’t know why they would continue to pay me,” he noted.

Some showrunners who’ve personally opted against rendering producer services argued passionately against internal WGA witchhunts against those hyphenates who opt to wear their producer hats. An insider at one studio said about 10% of their writer-producers were still showing up to work.

“I hope we will all be well behaved to those members who choose to continue their producerial responsibilities, because the fact is, it’s a personal choice,” said “DH” creator Cherry.

He added that in a few weeks, it wouldn’t matter since scripts will have dried up.

Strike has already put a halt to any further pilot development. A week ago, Whedon scored a seven-episode commitment from Fox to create “Dollhouse,” a new drama starring Eliza Dushku.

But this Wednesday, Whedon hit the picket line, even while fighting a cold and sipping chicken soup from a thermos.

“I have no conflict about this,” said Whedon, whose new creation will now be put on hold. “It’s not hard for me. The issues we’re talking about are so crucial.”

Several showrunners were gloomy about the possibility of a quick settlement. “Lost’s” Lindelof said he feared an eight-month walkout was a real possibility.

“People don’t give something for nothing,” he said. “If the guild is gonna make any strides in new media, we’re going to have to suffer a lot.”

MacFarlane expressed amazement at the lack of a settlement.

“Part of me is astonished that this is happening amongst adults and not children on a playground,” he said. “What’s being proposed is a very reasonable deal. Writers and their employers are partners and at the moment, that’s not being honored.”

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