The Line To Break Mogul Ranks Is Here…

There is not unanimity within the mogul camp on how to proceed with these resumed AMPTP-WGA talks. For one thing, not all their agendas are the same: there are the mostly movie studios, the mostly TV networks, and the studios that own networks, and the networks that own studios. But all are led by a handful of CEOs who are the power behind the AMPTP throne. In the old days of guild talks, the AMPTP was made up of hundreds of real producers. That’s the reason why this negotiation is so dramatically different than the strike of 1988. Because honest-to-god independent producers went by the wayside when financial syndication rules were eased. Then came Big Media consolidation, so now there’s no Aaron Spelling or Carsey Werner in the mix at the AMPTP telling the big boys to play nice. Now the bullies are in charge of the playground.

So it’s interesting that, today, WGA prez Patric Verrone began calling on the more moderate CEOs to break ranks with AMPTP which he claimed is “allowing bottom-line hard-liners to rule the day.” I’ve heard top WGA’ers privately refer to this as the “Let’s Make A Deal” strategy. But it hasn’t been articulated in public until now. “If any of these companies want to come forward and bargain with us individually, we think we can make a deal,” Verrone told AP while conferring with picketing writers at NBC in Burbank.

For weeks now, I’ve talked to several moguls about why they don’t deal individually with the WGA and blow off the AMPTP. After all, rather than collude, these major studios and networks are supposed to compete with one another. The car companies have a lot in common, but they still bargain individually with the auto workers. So let’s look at Hollywood. Sony is primarily in the movie business. Why not get their films restarted? And NBC has been in the cellar ratings-wise. Why not leap-frog other networks? But when I raise this possibility, the CEO’s answer is an audible shrug, followed by stammering and a simple, “I just can’t.” They don’t want to upset protocol and break ranks.

There is definitely a hardliner-moderate schism inside the AMPTP, one I wrote about well before the WGA strike even started. (See my previous, Hollywood Moguls Sound Strike Happy.) The hardliner CEOs fully expect that, with enough time on the picket line and little progress at the bargaining table, the WGA will splinter along the haves and have nots, with big names deciding to go fi-core and guild negotiators losing their clout. Those moguls that really do want to see the strike end sooner rather than later, believe the “human dynamic” within the negotiating room isn’t working and has to change. These moderates believe that, instead of Nick Counter, one of their own should be bargaining.

Their choice is Peter Chernin.

“Candidly, I’m happy to follow Peter. Logically, we need one person to go make the deal for us. But the 7 biggest producers all have conflicting views and big egos and it’s difficult to designate a single individual,” a studio chief told me recently. The No. 2 of News Corp./Fox and one of the original hardliners among the Big Media CEOs, Chernin has a boss, Rupert Murdoch, who’s a notorious union breaker. But inside Hollywood, Chernin has always been known as a concensus builder. On the other hand, Fox has the most to gain if there’s lousy network TV programming this winter and spring when American Idol starts again.

Peter not only is playing a lead role already, but he has the confidence and friendship of other moguls. He bikes regularly with Disney’s Bob Iger so a friendship has formed, and their businesses are quite similar. I’m told Iger would support Chernin as the moguls’ No. 1. So would NBC Universal’s Jeff Zucker, because he and Chernin also have become close friends and their business also resemble each other’s. Even Sony Entertainment’s Michael Lynton is another who’d get behind Chernin, I’ve learned.

More problematic is CBS’ Les Moonves and Warner Bros’ Barry Meyer.

Ex-actor Moonves used to be considered a moderate, but his early and harsh moves against the TV showrunners as soon as the strike started cast him in a hardliner role. That may be because of pressure from parent company Viacom boss Sumner Redstone, who right now is considered “quite the hardliner.”

As for Barry Meyer, long considered a hardliner, rampant rumors have been portraying him as the primary mogul hold-out to a deal. The whispering says “Peter and Les have supposedly softened but Barry has not softened yet. So the producers have to stall to allow them the time necessary to get Barry on board.” But rumors are not necessarily facts. Over the weekend, Meyer was down in Florida along with Time Warner’s senior management — from Jeff Bewkes to Bruce Rosenblum to Peter Roth to Jeff Robinov to Richard Plepler and others — at their annual confab. I had someone check with him down there, and Meyer steadfastly denies these whispers. “He’s not the mogul who’s lost the most from this. He’s not the most pissed-off mogul,” an insider relayed to me. “He’s not a hold-out.”

The result is that, as much as there’s thinking by the CEOs that one mogul could best do the job of repping the producers, the reality is that probably three need to be inside the talks: Chernin, Moonves (because of his ego), and Meyer (because of his seniority).

So will this happen? Not yet. Nick Counter is still nominally in charge. Once again, the moguls don’t want to upset protocol and break ranks. Phooey.

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