Studios and scribes draw up battle lines

“OJ’s in court today and I’m standing here. I don’t want to be here. I want to be in there, doing my job.” Joe Medeiros nods at the hulk of the NBC building in Burbank, Los Angeles, outside which he and a gaggle of fellow red-shirted pickets have been walking in circles for the best part of the morning.

Medeiros’s job is to make jokes, often at the expense of troubled celebrities such as OJ.
For almost 20 years, since just after the last screenwriters’ strike, he has been a lead writer for Jay Leno, working with the comic as he deputised for Johnny Carson and staying with him throughout Leno’s 15-year tenure on the Tonight Show.

Medeiros reaches in his pocket. “I think I have four cents in here.” His hand emerges. “Oh no, one of them is a euro.” The hand disappears again. “There it is,” he says, holding the four pennies in the palm of his hand, “four cents.” He adds a nickel and takes away a cent. “This is what we’re looking for.”

The nickel takes it up to eight cents, the amount the 12 000 Writers’ Guild of America members say they should get from the sale of DVDs. “The guy who sells the box gets more than the writers do,” Medeiros points out, not unreasonably.

The Alliance of Motion Picture and Television Producers, aka the studios, is having none of it. Thus, on a chilly morning, groups of writers have taken to the streets of Burbank to wave black and red placards and walk in circles in front of the studio gates. They’re at it in front of Disney on Buena Vista Street, they’re at it in front of Warner Bros on Warner Boulevard, and they’re at it outside NBC’s main entrance on Bob Hope Drive, opposite the Johnny Carson Park. “Dedicated,” a bronze plaque explains, “to the King of Late Night for 30 years of keeping America up late and laughing.”

Writers, it should be noted, do not make natural pickets. There is none of the purposeful militancy one might expect. Instead, the walking in circles that is a feature of any American picket line stutters as the writers pause to debate the finer points of their craft. Union organisers—writers of a more purposeful variety—bustle through to galvanise the distracted pickets.

“It’s interesting to meet fellow writers,” says Anna Sandor, a freelance TV movie writer. “To be picketing with a group of literate, funny people is a lot of fun and it’s good exercise.” She pauses. “I’m joking,” she adds.

Leno himself has played a role in the week, appearing to hand out coffee and doughnuts to his staff before going into his office not to make his nightly show. Another NBC incumbent, however, has angered staff by flip-flopping over the issue. Ellen DeGeneres, last seen weeping on daytime TV about her hairdresser’s daughter’s adopted dog, publicly supported the strikers on Monday and stayed away from the office. On Tuesday she was back and taping. If every industrial dispute needs a villain, Ellen may well have cast herself in the role, wittingly or otherwise.

Rumours rush through the picket lines: the talent bookers are writing the scripts for Ellen; someone inside is telling someone outside who’s writing what for which show. The teamsters are going to get more militant in their support next week. The police are threatening to hand out tickets for “contributing to noise pollution” if the pickets continue to hold up their “honk” signs to passing motorists.

“There are a lot of Priuses honking,” says Andy McElfresh, another Leno writer, “a lot of non-writing Priuses.” Honking is out, he notes. “But we’re allowed to carry torches and pitchforks.”

In many ways the writers’ strike is a classic labour dispute, two entrenched interests in an evolving industry struggling over the division of the spoils.

“I’m nervous about the whole chant thing,” says Kip Madsen, a writer on another late-night talk show, Last Call with Carson Daly. The show is not as well known as some of the rest. “You serve an internship, you work your way up and before you know it you’re working on a show that nobody’s ever seen,” says Madsen, with justifiable pride.

Behind him, Range Rovers, Mercedeses and Lexus limos pass through the picket line and into the car park, shaded windows hiding the occupants’ thoughts.

“The studios want to take three years to study it and see if this internet thing is popular,” says Madsen, referring to the key sticking point between the two sides, the division of revenues from internet and digital distribution. “I definitely understand where they’re coming from. They want to keep the profits. It makes sense.”—Guardian Unlimited Â

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