Strike shuts down 'Christine,' 'Back to You'
As showrunners start to flex their muscle with plans for a major rally today, sitcom and drama sets are going dark — in some cases sooner than the nets and studios had anticipated.Laffer “The New Adventures of Old Christine” could conceivably produce a seg this week — but exec producer Kari Lizer shut the show down, as star Julia Louis-Dreyfus hit the picket lines in support of the scribes. Fox’s “Back to You” was set to return from hiatus today, but that table-read was scrapped, and it appears the show won’t return until the writers do. Also already dark: Fox’s “‘Til Death” and CBS’ “Rules of Engagement.” And it doesn’t appear as if much is getting done over on NBC’s “The Office” either. Even shows still in production will likely go dark in the next week or two, as those remaining scripts are shot, with nothing left in the pipeline. Meanwhile, latenight TV remained dark Tuesday as word leaked out that “The Tonight Show with Jay Leno” and “Late Night with Conan O’Brien” have told their support staffs they would be laid off in two weeks, barring a strike settlement. “Late Show with David Letterman” has also put its staffers on notice. The big issue dogging the nets on the primetime side is the high volume of exec producers refusing to cross the picket lines even to perform non-writing chores on scripts that have already been completed. That’s forcing shows to shut down sooner than the webs expected, even under the strike scenario. In the past two days, Shonda Rhimes (“Grey’s Anatomy,” “Private Practice”) and Shawn Ryan (“The Shield,” “The Unit”) have come out publicly with statements declaring they won’t help wrap up episodes in the works. It’s a change from the pre-strike conventional wisdom that such showrunners would stay on the job. “I absolutely believed that I would edit our episodes,” Rhimes wrote in an email widely circulated late Monday. “Until a thought hit me: how can I walk a picket line and then continue to essentially work? How am I supposed to look at myself in the mirror or look at my child years from now and know that I did not have the courage of my convictions to stand up and put myself more at risk than anyone else?” To be sure, many showrunners are still clearly offering help to their shows. Even if they’re not crossing picket lines, the fact that so many skeins remain in production indicates showrunners are working from home. One studio exec also insisted that some showrunners will go back to work in a few days after offering a symbolic show of support. Still, the greater-than-expected showrunner solidarity is the result of a concerted effort by the WGA to shore up support among its most high-profile members. Plans are under way for a picketing session today at Disney-ABC featuring only showrunners. It follows a pre-strike powwow Saturday of nearly 100 showrunners, who are now operating under the loose umbrella of United Showrunners. “Back to You” co-creator Steve Levitan said showrunners are hoping their unity will show management they’re behind the WGA leadership, thus bringing a swift resolution to the strike. “This group exists for one reason: To try to bring the situation to a head as soon as possible so that everyone can get back to work,” Levitan said. The fact that showrunners are both scribes and managers gives them a unique perspective on the situation at hand, he added. “We’re capable of understanding the big picture. We supervise hundreds of people. We oversee multi-million dollar budgets. We create billion dollar assets. We’re partners with management on our shows,” Levitan said. “But we’re writers first, and we believe in our guild leadership and our negotiators.” Showrunners seem to hope that if the supply of episodes dries up quickly, nets and studios will be forced to get serious sooner. That also seems to be the logic behind the several studios who’ve sent letters to their writing and non-wrtiting producers telling them their deals have been suspended. “Unless everyone recognizes the pain this is going to cause, this thing is never going to be settled,” one studio chief said . The WGA’s actions seem to be influencing showrunners who had been on the fence, such as Rhimes and Ryan. Some hyphenates are still struggling with what to do. Silvio Horta, creator-exec producer of ABC’s “Ugly Betty,” was mulling over his next move Tuesday afternoon while walking the picket line in front of Paramount Pictures. He’s been a part of every final mix session for his show since it began. He and his writers worked until 3:30 a.m. Saturday to finish work on episode 13 of the season. Horta said he definitely won’t cross a picket line to work on his show, but he knows it would be possible for him to participate by phone. As of late afternoon, he hadn’t decided what to do about the mix session. “The perfectionist in me wants to participate,” he said. “The Norma Rae in me wants to support my union.” Horta isn’t wavering on the issues. “The producers’ position is just abominable,” he said, adding that he’s “been swayed much more” in the past few days due to the letters from Rhimes and Ryan. “It’s a tough position because it’s your baby, and you want to protect it,” he said. “But none of us want to be in a position where we’re helping producers get more episodes out of us.” Horta planned to attend today’s showrunners’ picket and a possible lunch, where he said he’ll be listening to what other hyphenates have to say. At the Paramount picket line, a sizable group of picketing writers continued to seem pumped up on Day Two. Noise from passing autos on Melrose was deafening at times during the afternoon, with a steady stream of motorists offering support. Strike captain NanciKatz Ellis said spirits were high, while organization on the picket lines was getting even better. “I thought we were pretty organized Monday, but we did forget things like trash bags,” she said. Some notable scribes who turned out at Par Tuesday included Chris Brancato (“Boomtown”) and Fax Bahr (“Blue Collar TV”). Several SAG members also showed up to walk the line, including Jeff Garlin (“Curb Your Enthusiasm”). Over at Disney, most shows remain in production for now, although single-camera laffer “Carpoolers” will wrap principal photography on its final episode (for now) today. After that, “Desperate Housewives” is expected to finish shooting its last available script by the end of the week. Production on “Housewives” was disrupted Tuesday when a group of strikers (including, according to the Associated Press, thesp Louis-Dreyfus) marched over to a location shoot and started chanting. Perhaps shooting in Toluca Lake isn’t such a good idea, given how close it is to the Burbank-based studios. The scene in question was being filmed inside a house when the pickets arrived; a studio rep said producers were still able to shoot interior scenes, but background sound will have to be tweaked in post-production. Meanwhile, at 20th Century Fox TV, insiders said assistants and other show staffers will be informed of their fate shortly. “It will be true across the board, and not just ‘24,’ ” one exec said, referring to rumors that “24″ staffers had already been let go. “There will be layoffs.” Studio reps said they’ll attempt to keep workers on as long as there is work to do, but that might not be much longer. “As those jobs become obsolete and shows finish up their final script, we can’t keep those jobs,” one exec said. Most of Universal Media Studios’ shows were still in production Tuesday — with a big asterisk next to “The Office.” Producers on the show were able to shoot some scenes Monday, but several stars, including key thesp Steve Carell, haven’t made it to set, leaving things up in the air there. CBS Paramount, meanwhile, already has sitcom “Everybody Hates Chris” and midseason drama “Jericho” in the can; beyond that, all the studio’s dramas remained in production as of Tuesday. Sitcoms such as “Girlfriends,” “The Game” and “Aliens in America” were also still in production, but the Eye’s “Rules of Engagement” (produced with Sony) taped its last episode Sunday, and is dark for now. On the HBO front, the live talker “Real Time with Bill Maher” was set to run its final episode of the season this week; instead, the show won’t air; “Real Time” isn’t skedded to return with a new season until January, when hopefully the strike will be over. As for other HBO skeins in production, “True Blood” is in the middle of its third seg, while “12 Miles of Bad Road” has completed six segs. Both remain in production for now, but will shut down once current scripts are produced. All 43 episodes of the paycabler’s upcoming strip “In Treatment” are already in the can. Across the board, execs said each show is different, with some productions likely to continue until the end of the month (such as “24,” which just shot several scenes in Washington, D.C.), while others will go dark a lot sooner. “Over the next week or so, we’ll see a real narrowing of things that are able to be shot,” said one exec. “Some shows are well-oiled machines and banked several scripts that don’t need a lot of rewrites, and some are closer to being shut down.”
Follow @Variety on Twitter for breaking news, reviews and more