Here is what is clear to me based on new reporting about the entrenched positions of both sides: hopes for any kind of settlement have dimmed. I have learned that last week Jeffrey Katzenberg tried and failed to backchannel a compromise that would have brought both the WGA and the AMPTP back to the bargaining table. It was an effort that was laudable. But the fact that it was unsuccessful dramatically points up disturbing realities, I have learned: that the CEOs are deeply entrenched in their desire to punish the WGA for daring to defy them by striking and to bully the writers into submission on every issue, and that the moguls consider the writers are sadly misguided to believe they have any leverage left. I’m told the CEOs are determined to write off not just the rest of this TV season (including the Back 9 of scripted series), but also pilot season and the 2008/2009 schedule as well. Indeed, network orders for reality TV shows are pouring into the agencies right now. The studios and networks also are intent on changing the way they do TV development so they can stop spending hundreds of millions of dollars in order to see just a few new shows succeed. As for advertising, the CEOs seem determined to do away with the upfront business and instead make their money from the scatter market. I’m sorry to break this disappointing development right before Christmas, but I pledged to stay objective in my reporting and I can’t ignore this major news development. The truth often hurts. But don’t blame the messenger. And, no, this info wasn’t dumped in my lap, either. (That only happens over at Variety or the Los Angeles Times…)
The WGA-AMPTP post-strike talks fell apart December 7th when the mogul reps issued an ultimatum, containing six issues which the WGA needed to take off the table for any talks to continue, then ended all negotiations. Katzenberg as both a moderate this time around (he was a hardliner back during the WGA strike of 1988) and a bit player (as head of small DreamWorks Animation) has been marginalized by the Big Media moguls during these negotiations (unlike ’88 when he headed Walt Disney Studios and was a major henchman). Despite his lowly status, Jeffrey made an effort, with the full knowledge of the other CEOs, to get the talks restarted. “Ultimately, what he was trying to do was to bring both sides back before the DGA started negotiating,” a source told me.
So Katzenberg organized three give-and-take sessions between himself and 30 to 40 TV showrunners seeking his advice because of their concern about the WGA’s negotiating strategy. These so-called dissidents claim to represent at least a 100 hyphenates. And they say they had the blessing of three members of the WGA negotiating committee. But WGA insiders maintain there is no widespread showrunner movement to negotiate independently, “just a small group who mistakenly thought they could maneuver behind the scenes (with only the best intentions) but were blindsided by the AMPTP,” as an influential WGA insider tells me. WGA leadership claims showrunner unanimity and points to a series of smaller showrunner informational meetings that took place during the same period of time which included at least a hundred if not more. But not only WGA negotiating committee member Carlton Cuse went back to work to finish his producing duties on Lost without the knowledge of the general membership, so, too, did Marc Cherry, the Desperate Housewives showrunner and another WGA negotiating member. There’s no question many showrunners are now in solidarity with WGA leadership, both some are not. It’s true the strike is being waged on their backs because of their influential positions. And while these producer/writers are on the picket lines, the WGA for some reason has not gone after the director/writers or the actor/writers to stop working as the guild promised it would.
According to sources, Katzenberg told the dissident showrunners, “If your WGA leaders don’t make a deal with us before the DGA, my concern is you’ll never make a deal with us. The guild will break down and key people like yourselves will go Fi-Core. It’ll be 1988 all over again almost to the week and month. It’s my belief that it’s not in anyone’s interest, in fact it would be bad for the Industry as a whole, for the guild to get divided. And that’s what’s going to happen.”
Then Katzenberg went to Barry Meyer, the Warner Bros chairman/CEO considered a hardliner among the moguls, and told him that this clique of showrunners were ready to go to their leadership and tell them to focus only on New Media issues if the talks re-started. But the moguls needed to go back into negotiations without any conditions so that ultimatum had to be taken off the table. “Jeffrey told Barry, ‘I’m confident we will get a deal done if you go back in the room with the WGA now,'” an insider confided.
But Meyer, obviously speaking for the rest of the CEOs, refused. Now those dissident showrunners, I’m told, feel really burned. “They totally understood now what the negotiating committee has been through for the past six months and were very apologetic that they had questioned leadership up until now. ‘Sheepish’ was the word I heard used,” one influential WGA insider tells me. “Although now there really aren’t two differing opinions anymore. We all think the AMPTP sucks and that our guys have been sandbagged throughout this process.” So no talks are planned, none are anticipated, and if the moguls continue to have their way and blow up the TV development process, none will be forthcoming for months and months. That is the reality.
I am now convinced that the 8 Big Media moguls pretty much have a vice-like grip on how this strike will get settled. And virtually no amount of external pressure will force their hand. I know from my many years of reporting on labor negotiations in the U.S. and abroad that, in any new contract negotiation, there is one watershed moment when the union and the companies can move the flag down the field in a meaningful way before ego, rhetoric, and the passage of time get the better of everyone involved. Has that moment come and gone? I honestly don’t know, but if it hasn’t, then it’s soon — very soon.