Scribes, Studios Back in the Ring

NEW YORK At 10 a.m. Monday, union scribes and studio suits will touch gloves and resume their sparring over terms of a new film and TV contract.

Industry executives scoring this latest round of negotiations between the Writers Guild of America and the Alliance of Motion Picture & Television Producers hope the parties keep things sporting and avoid the bloody spectacle of 17 previous bargaining sessions. But things will swing on two key questions:

— Will the parties pick up roughly where they left off Nov. 4? That was their last bargaining session before the writers strike began Nov. 5, and it featured a withdrawal of DVD demands by the guild as well as some give on new-media compensation by the studios.

— How flexible will the WGA or the AMPTP prove on matters important to each other and offering possibility for compromise?

The guild and studios have implemented a press blackout on Monday’s session, which is being held in an undisclosed location. Those were the ground rules for their last bargaining session only, and it will bear watching if they make any difference in the proceedings.

In the last session, parties met at the Sofitel Hotel in West Hollywood after alternating between guild headquarters in Los Angeles and AMPTP’s office in Encino, Calif.

A federal mediator who joined the proceedings for the past few sessions surely had something to do with the press blackout. The move to a secret site for the talks seemed designed to discourage daily coverage by broadcast media, which had taken to parking its camera trucks outside WGA headquarters in the final days before the strike.

Meanwhile, guild members will continue picketing activities on both coasts into a fourth week of the strike.

The WGA West posted on its Web site that pickets should take up their usual sites at nine locations throughout Los Angeles Monday. The WGA East is planning a membership rally for Washington Square Park in New York on Tuesday.

WGA brass believes that its picketing, rallies and other public pressure have forced management back to the bargaining table. It also appeared that AMPTP might have been surprised by the wide early support for the strike among TV showrunners.

Studios pressed the showrunners hard, with CBS Paramount Network TV and 20th Century Fox TV even threatening legal action for any of them staying off the job. But at least for the first week or two, showrunner support remained solid, with some such as Shonda Rhimes of ABC’s Private Practice and Greg Daniels of NBC’s The Office picketing their own shows.

Still, most of the damage that support could wreak has already been accomplished, and many showrunners are expected to head back to work to help with non-writing chores on final episodes of strike-shortened series. Continued leverage from the writers strike will hinge on how networks’ replacement programming—mostly reality shows—does in the ratings and whether early signs of film-side disruptions broaden.

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