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Write Off

The end of the strike.

11:00 PM, Feb 19, 2008 • By KEVIN KUSINITZ
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HERE'S A LITTLE GAME to occupy your time when you're stuck in traffic. It's called "TV Writers Or . . . ?" Think of a profession whose work stoppage would have a more direct effect on your life. TV writers or . . . garbage men? TV writers or . . . cops? TV writers or . . . firemen? TV writers or . . . the person who bags your groceries?

Not much of a challenge, to be sure. Yet, to read the comments left at several websites since November, you'd think that televisions were in fact dialysis machines, and that the Writers Guild of America (WGA) strike left countless patients dying without their regular drip drip drip of Jon Stewart and Stephen Colbert.

How can this strike continue, they wailed, when 96.4 percent of the public polled support the writers? Just where they got that figure was never explained. I bet you couldn't find 96.4 people who were even aware there was a strike until after Christmas. In my admittedly-small group of friends, internal polling regarding the strike showed 100 percent were looking forward to catching up on their reading, watching their DVD collection or, as a last resort, interacting with family members.

Don't get me wrong. I'm sure most people really do want the writers to get a fair shake. I'm equally sure, however, that the polltakers didn't give some key information, like the writers' salaries. Let's take a look at what they pull down for a hit dramatic series (as compiled by the Televisionista website).

  • One story/script: $30,823 One rewrite: $8,632. One polish: $4,324.
  • Six storylines for one season: $44,353. Each additional storyline: $4,435.
  • Each primetime rerun: $8,431-$21,078.

By the way, this doesn't include their $2,890-$3,688 weekly check. Now try explaining residuals to your average nine-to-fiver. Only a Screen Actors Guild strike, threatened for the spring, would provoke more raucous laughter. That's public perception for you.

Writers are in a weird situation. They're the ones who come up with the words that set every movie and TV series into motion. Yet, at the same time, they've had zero leverage since the Lumiere Brothers premiered Train Arriving at the Station in 1895. Forget low man on the totem pole; writers are the low splinter. Unless you're one of the few writers with real juice--Aaron Sorkin and Desperate Housewives creator Marc Cherry among the juiciest--the only thing that separates you from the tourists on the Universal Studios tour is your paycheck. Producers who loved your first draft demand a dozen rewrites on the house. Then the directors shred your finished script into something resembling mozzarella. And sooner or later most actors eventually believe they're making up their dialogue as they go along. Writers take the abuse because . . . well, it's the only script they know.

So it wasn't a surprise that many WGA hardliners looked forward to a long, ugly strike to prove they meant business. And it wasn't a surprise they ended up disappointed. Somehow the sight of Larry David (Curb Your Enthusiasm) and Matt Groening (The Simpsons) carrying picket signs didn't carry the day. Those guys were undoubtedly sincere in marching for their brothers and sisters in the writers' room, but--again with the public perception!--they looked like billionaires crying poor. Nor did the solidarity of the screen actors count for much. A friend who dined with a posse of several actors in early December told me they were "fired up" over the writers strike. Well, duh--it wasn't them chanting slogans like, "We write the story-a for Eva Langoria!" on the picket line. (You'd think professionals could come up with something better.)

Sure Robin Williams, Richard Belzer, and their ilk were seen marching alongside the writers . . . for a while. But what made for a great photo-op in November was so 2007 by New Year's Day. After all, there were more important things to consider, like the upcoming Oscar ceremonies.

That proved to be the writers' biggest bargaining chip, for Oscar hates anyone raining on his peacock parade. If the strike had continued, Hollywood would be deprived of four hours of vacuous blather, dour threats of global warming and--here's the real killer--Dick Cheney hunting jokes. Now that's serious. This is a business, remember, that considers Two and a Half Men positively Shavian.

If that wasn't enough, the WGA had yet another crafty maneuver up its sleeve. They cut a deal with David Letterman's Worldwide Pants production company, allowing writers to return to Dave's Late Show and Craig Ferguson's Late Late Show. That the other hosts would have to make do without scripts upon their return would prove just how valuable writers are even to the funniest of funnymen.