Strike-proofing soaps, late-night

Apr 23, 2001  •  Post A Comment

The prospect of guild strikes cutting off the pipeline of prime-time TV series has generated many headlines, but there is just as much worry within the industry over the potential loss of higher-profit-margin late-night and daytime network series.
As negotiations among the Writers Guild of America, the broadcast networks and Hollywood studios enter a second week, producers of late-night staples such as CBS’s “The Late Show With David Letterman” and NBC’s “Tonight Show With Jay Leno” are carefully mulling the possibility of entering “interim” contract agreements-in the same way NBC’s former “Tonight Show” host Johnny Carson successfully negotiated a stopgap deal to keep the show going during the 51/2-month WGA strike of 1988.
Publicly, representatives for Mr. Letterman and Mr. Leno have been stating-as members of the WGA-that they “support” the guild in its efforts to gain higher residual fees and other concessions or create a crippling work stoppage. However, sources close to both late-night shows say the shows are working on contingency plans, including one to approach the WGA for interim contracts, which could conceivably meet the scribes’ current demands.
“What Johnny did in 1988 worked in somewhat stemming the pain of the strike, because he basically was willing to give what his writers were looking at from the beginning,” said a source close to the Letterman show. “David has always been supportive of the writers, because he is one, but he also thinks things can be worked out to everyone’s benefit under an interim pact.”
Potentially at stake if there is a WGA strike when the current contract expires May 1 is some portion of the $700 million or more in annual ad revenue for NBC’s “Tonight” and “Late Night with Conan O’Brien” as well as CBS’s “Late Show “ and “The Late, Late Show with Craig Kilborn.”
NBC officials have been a little bit more tight-lipped about their late-night contingency plans, although Peacock Network representatives have said “Tonight” would go into repeats as part of Mr. Leno’s observance of a strike. Ted Harbert, president of NBC Studios, the in-house producer of “Tonight” and “Late Night,” declined to comment on strike options but stressed that he is “optimistic” the current talks can avert a strike.
Mr. Harbert and network in-house producers of daytime soap operas are not as immediately concerned by similarly threatened strikes by the Screen Actors Guild and American Federation of Television and Radio Artists, whose contracts expire on June 30 and Nov. 15, respectively.
Actors in daytime soaps are working under current AFTRA contracts, although there has been concern they could similarly walk off sets in a sympathy strike with SAG members. In fact, a large number of daytime soap stars also carry SAG membership cards, but it remains to be seen if they would be willing join picket lines manned by unemployed prime-time stars.
“A strike is no good for any daypart, and everyone down the line from prime time to daytime is going to equally feel the disastrous economic brunt of a work stoppage,” Mr. Harbert said. “I think everyone wants a fair, equitable deal, because the livelihoods for people on both sides could be irrevocably harmed if these strikes transpire over a long period of time.”
Nevertheless, a production source close to CBS’s top-rated “Young and the Restless” and “Bold and the Beautiful” soap operas obliquely warned of consequences if AFTRA members refused to work “under current contractual obligations,” even if SAG actors hit the picket lines 41/2 months earlier. “They will be held to the contracts by whatever legal means,” said the production source, who declined to illustrate how the legal measures could be carried out.
Like late-night series, the five-day-a-week soaps are considered much-needed revenue sources for the networks, even though daytime ratings have been eroding (much like those for prime time) over the past 15 years.
“These days, viewers even mildly invested in daily story arcs typically watch two to three days of soaps each week, so a prolonged strike could have a greater corrosive effect on future viewing,” said the production source.
Moreover, the Big 3 networks similarly stand to lose a big piece of their $3 billion in annual domestic daytime ad revenue if they have to go without original soap episodes during a strike. However, even if AFTRA went on strike, network sources believe the networks would have a backlog of original episodes to air though January. Without much elaboration, soap sources also are confident there would either be enough scripts or nonunion writers who could fill-in during a WGA strike.
An AFTRA strike could be particularly alarming, with the potential loss of billions of dollars in international soap program and format license fees during a prolonged strike affecting the networks, major studios, independent producers and actors.
Bell-Phillip Productions, producer of “Bold and the Beautiful,” has sold the show in more than 100 markets internationally. Columbia TriStar, producer of top-rated “Young and the Restless,” along with co-producer Bell-Phillips, has the show sold in 45 overseas
Typically, many of their international markets have a four- to six-month lag time when it comes to delivery of fresh soap episodes, but any work stoppage could similarly reflect in lower future international residuals for AFTRA members.
“We have a longtime association with our actors going as far back as 28 years on `Y&R,’ so the combined loss of salary and international participation could be catastrophic,” said the production source.
A work stoppage by AFTRA could have a similarly negative impact on a number of high-profile syndicated talk shows and game shows.
Oprah Winfrey and Regis Philbin are members of SAG, and both are covered by AFTRA, as are soap actors. That would allow their first-run work to air despite the SAG blackout, should they choose to work. In danger, however, is King World Productions’ “Hollywood Squares,” which relies on both Whoopi Goldberg, a strike proponent, and WGA writers to create the jokes used on the show.
As for the action hours, most series, ranging from Columbia TriStar Television Distribution’s “VIP” and “Sheena” to Tribune Entertainment’s “Andromeda” and “Beastmaster” already have enough episodes in the can to last anywhere from the fourth quarter to the entire season without interruption.
“We went right from shooting this season to production on next season in preparation of this,” said Steve Mosko, president of CTTD. “Being able to sell original episodes has now become a huge positive for us, and from an advertiser perspective it will be business as usual to have proven programming already in place.”
Indeed, media buyers are concerned they won’t be able to fill their client’s needs should the strike take place, and they may have to turn to cable and syndication, which rely less on scripted programming and are therefore more immune to the effects of a work stoppage.
Because of this, virtually every syndicator has drawn up contingency plans to take advantage of their upcoming time in the spotlight.
“Our advertisers are coming to us wanting to know what our strike plan is,” said Henry Urick, vice president of marketing at Tribune. “When they find out we do have a plan, and that we got a jump on scripts for our scripted series so that we can have uninterrupted broadcasts through the third or fourth quarter, they are relieved.”
Mr. Urick said “Andromeda,” “Earth: Final Conflict,” “Beastmaster” and the upcoming hour “Mutant X” will all enter the season as scheduled in the fall, thanks to early production starts and production outside the United States.