Show runners play key role in writers' strike

HOLLYWOOD — Neal Baer hasn't written a word since the Writers Guild of America went on strike against the major studios three weeks ago. But the executive producer of NBC's "Law & Order: SVU" took a red-eye flight from Los Angeles to New York last week to meet with about 150 people on the show who could be out of jobs once scripts run out next month.

"I felt I owed it to my crew," Baer said in an interview. "I wanted to tell them how deeply sorry I was. They face the calamity of being laid off. But the writers had to fight for what was right."

Since the strike began Nov. 5, the elite group of TV show runners — writers like Baer who also manage prime-time productions — have felt torn by their dual loyalties to the guild and to their programs.

The majority agreed to stop work completely, hoping that by shutting down production of some of TV's most popular programs they could force the studios to capitulate and bring the strike to a quick end. Show runners including Baer vowed not to fulfill their producing obligations until serious negotiations resumed.

But a contingent of more than two dozen have quietly returned to work, cutting and editing episodes written before the strike began, according to talent agents and writers. Their actions have stoked worries among writers about a repeat outcome of the last major Hollywood strike in 1988, when show runners went back to work after five months, undercutting the bargaining power of the guild, which ultimately agreed to terms it had earlier rejected.

Whether the rift this time around will give the studios an advantage in negotiating a new contract will be unclear until the two sides begin talks again next week. Negotiations resume today and show runners have been credited with helping to bring the studios back to the table, both because some shuttered productions while others extended an olive branch by returning to work.

"I think we woke them up a little bit," said Steve Levitan, the show runner on Fox's "Back to You." "What we've been saying all along is we're your partners on these shows. We understand the big picture but we think that the studios have not been operating in good faith."

What makes the situation complicated, said Baer, a member of the guild's negotiating committee, is that "show runners are both labor and management."

They are responsible for the teams of people who bring TV to life. "At the end of the strike, you have to ask yourself: 'How did I behave?' " said veteran show runner Jonathan Prince, who returned to his job overseeing CBS's "Cane," starring Jimmy Smits. "Although I was faithful to my guild by not writing one word, did I withhold my producing services? Or did I make sure that the production kept going so the crew could continue to earn a paycheck for a few more weeks?"

On the final weekend of October, just days before the writers contract expired, guild and studio negotiators remained far apart in reaching a new accord, disagreeing about the amount writers should be paid when their work is distributed over the Internet or other new media devices. No serious talks had even taken place.

The guild had held several meetings for show runners, but they were not well-attended, according to Levitan, who previously had produced "Just Shoot Me."

Levitan stepped into the breach. He invited a small group to lunch to discuss strategies for unifying Hollywood's top writer-producers, giving birth to "United Show Runners." The group designed the "Pencils Down Means Pencils Down" ads, signed by 150 show runners, that appeared in the entertainment trade papers Nov. 1.

That night, at a rally attended by 3,000 writers at the Los Angeles Convention Center, the guild announced plans to call a strike.

In an impassioned plea, one member of the Teamsters union told show runners they needed to honor the picket line if the guild wanted the support of his union. The Teamsters had the power to bring production to a halt because they deliver construction materials and other gear to sound stages and sets.

The next afternoon, an e-mail was sent by United Show Runners inviting writer-producers to a meeting the following day. That Saturday, Nov. 3, about 100 show runners met at the Sheraton Universal Hotel, where Levitan moderated a session that lasted nearly three hours.

Some show runners who had hurried to finish scripts before the strike began were chastised for their reluctance to walk away from their productions.

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"This is the only industry in the world where employees would actually do extra work to help their employer withstand a strike," said Edward Bernero, the show runner of CBS's "Criminal Minds." "Could you imagine being in a widget factory and having someone say, 'Hurry up, let's make more widgets because we are going on strike?'"

Bernero, a former Chicago police officer and son of a union truck driver, has not worked despite receiving a letter threatening legal action from CBS for breaching his contract.

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At the gathering, Shawn Ryan, creator of "The Shield," implored show runners to abandon all of their duties for at least five days as a sign of solidarity with the Teamsters. Ryan garnered respect not only because of his credentials — he also produces CBS's "The Unit" — but for his passion and position on the guild's negotiating committee.

A vote was nearly unanimous, with only 10 or 11 against it, according to several people who attended.

"It was a very inspirational meeting," Levitan said. "A lot of people came in with reservations and left with the idea that we can make a difference." He said the show runners hoped to make the strike brief by shutting down their own productions.

By Nov. 7, the Teamsters were crossing picket lines, the studios had sent breach of contract letters, and worse, a few show runners were producing on the sly — at their homes and other locations, careful not to cross the picket lines.

"It's scary because your life's work is at stake," said Kari Lizer, the show runner on "The New Adventures of Old Christine." "Walking away and hoping that they're not going to finish the shows without you, that's the scary part. But I think the only way to make an impact is to stop providing our services."

If the strike lasts another couple of weeks, the issue of whether to produce or not will be moot. There will be no scripts left to shoot.

Howard Gordon, show runner for Fox's "24," says the question misses the point and distracts writers from their united stance on contract demands. "Our leverage is that we are writers and that the pipeline will dry up," said Gordon, who hasn't worked since the strike began. "If the show is not as well edited, it may reflect a little on the ratings, (but) it's not going to be the factor that ends the strike."

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