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Hollywood Strike Affecting Writers of Color

MICHEL MARTIN, host:

If you were hoping for a few new laughs from Jay Leno or David Letterman last night, you were out of luck. There was no one there to write the jokes. And the programs were forced into reruns. The two shows were among the first casualties of a strike by Hollywood writers against TV and movie producers. Members of the Writers Guild of America walked out yesterday morning after failing to reach an agreement with studio executives on compensation for Internet and DVD profits.

Joining us to talk about the strike is writer and producer Larry Andries at our studio at NPR West; and Eric Deggans, TV and media critic for the St. Petersburg Times. He's at the Poynter Institute in St. Petersburg, Florida.

Thank you both so much for speaking with us.

Mr. LARRY ANDRIES (Writer, Producer; Board Member, Organization of Black Screenwriters): Glad to be here.

Mr. ERIC DEGGANS (TV and Media Critic, St. Petersburg Times): Good to be here.

MARTIN: Larry, if you would - in a nut shell - tell us what the strike is about.

Mr. ANDRIES: It's about the next generation of technology. Eighteen years ago, the Writers Guild took a minority share of the new technology called DVD. And that was a terrible contract for us. And now we have video-on-demand and movies on iPods. And the Writers Guild wants a fair share of this new technology.

MARTIN: Now, you are both a writer and a producer. So are you striking yourself?

(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr. ANDRIES: Yes, I am. And people in my position are in a - weird in a position that you could write a script that's about to be produced yet you can't change it or rewrite it for contingency. And so, yeah, you're split between two masters.

MARTIN: So are you supportive of the strike? Is the writer side of you supportive of the side that's striking your producer side?

Mr. ANDRIES: I am very much so because we're setting the bar for the actors guild and the directors guild because our contract will set the paradigm for their negotiations and we're setting the table for the next 15 years or so of contracts.

MARTIN: And as I understand it, you were actually in the middle of writing a pilot for a television program now. So what happens to you? You've got to stop writing or can you continue to write but you can't turn your work in? Now, how does that work?

Mr. ANDRIES: I can certainly think about it for the next couple of weeks or months or how long it takes. But I'm in limbo. I was right in the middle of the development process. And now that's at a screeching halt. And so I can certainly do anything I want to on my own but I can't submit it to anyone.

MARTIN: You can't submit it to anybody. And forgive me for asking a personal question. Does that mean you have no income?

Mr. ANDRIES: You know, we knew this was coming for about a year now. And so I've been sitting my pennies for this eventuality. But, yeah, no income for a while.

MARTIN: All right. Eric - Eric Deggans, to you, there are about 12,000 members of the Writers Guild, as I understand it. How many of them are people of color?

Mr. DEGGANS: That, unfortunately, I don't know. I would imagine not many.

MARTIN: Well, a Writers Guild study released earlier this year found that minority writers accounted for fewer than 10 percent of employed television writers from 1999 to 2005. Now, you've spent a lot of time, you know, in Hollywood and New York. So does that sound about right to you?

Mr. DEGGANS: Yeah. Yeah. That sounds about right.

MARTIN: And we talked earlier at the beginning of the fall television season about the percentage of minority characters on programs and the number of programs that are actually ran by people of color. So I guess what I'm wondering here is if you are a person of color and you're particularly committed to programs ran by people of color, it sounds to me like you're really not that affected.

Mr. DEGGANS: Well, it's been interesting to see the cascading effect of this strike. Basically, the shows that need material right away are the ones that are affected first. So we've seen the "Late Night Show" go into reruns. We've seen "The Daily Show" go into reruns. I imagine "The Colbert Report" is go into be in reruns as well. Then, eventually, the scripts will run out on the soap operas. And so we'll see them have to go into reruns or some other alternative programming. And then, eventually, probably around January, we will see the network television shows also have to go into reruns or news magazines or reality shows, TV shows that utilize producers who are not defined as writers or don't have the status with the WGA. And so there'll be a cascading effect through the industry as different types of shows bump up against the need to use writers that are unionized.

MARTIN: Well, how does reality television fit into all this, Eric? Because you were the one who sort of told us that reality TV is one of these places that has a lot of loyalty from a diverse viewership because it tends to be more diverse. So how does reality get affected by - the shows like "American Idol," for example?

Mr. DEGGANS: Well, you know, the reality show producers have been very sly about how they define what people do on reality TV shows. When there was an attempt to unionize the people who do what we would have called writing, the show is basically figuring out what the storylines will be and, even occasionally, giving lines to people. I know it's a shock that reality TV is contrived. But…

MARTIN: I'm shocked.

Mr. DEGGANS: …what they did was they redefined these people and they called them either producers or editors so - as a way to sort of keep them from getting unionized, so they wouldn't have to face the same problems that the scripted shows are facing right now. So what you'll see if you're a fan of reality shows is more reality if the strike goes on as long as some people fear.

MARTIN: So Larry, what does this mean for someone like you? Does it mean that if a reality show offers you an opportunity, could you then participate in it if you wanted to or would that not be considered appropriate?

Mr. ANDRIES: I could but that's not the side of the street that I walk on. I don't think it will affect me when the strike is over. I've been doing this for quite a while and so I have a beachhead. It will affect more that first time writer or that writer that just was staffed on a show because the market may shrink after the strike is over when the producers realize we don't need all these writers. And most writers of color are in the low level staff writer positions. And those seats may not be there when the strike is over.

MARTIN: And what about some of the new programs that have been - that are featuring characters of color that also have involvement by writers of color. Some of them have been well-reviewed. Some of them have not. Are they then more vulnerable because they don't have as much time to build up audience loyalty?

Mr. ANDRIES: They are. If a new show came out of the gate as a hit, that show is fine. But if that show was called on the bubble, that's a good opportunity for a studio or network to let that show go rather than staying after a long haul.

MARTIN: Now, last time, something like this was in - 1988? I think you told us it lasted for five months. Speaking of the long haul, do you think that the strike will last that long?

Mr. ANDRIES: I think it's either going to be a week or a long, long time. It's either or. It's a blinking contest - which side can withstand the most pain the longest.

MARTIN: And Eric, what do you think? Or how do you - do you think that most viewers care?

Mr. DEGGANS: I think viewers don't care so much right now because there's not that many shows that have been affected. Unfortunately, the problem with the work stoppage like this is that it has to go on for a while for the viewers to notice and start complaining and for people like me to start writing about it. It's not that unusual for "The Daily Show" or for Letterman to be in reruns. So as I noted in my blog today, you know, day one of the strike for the viewer doesn't feel that different than the days leading up to it.

Now, when we're two months in and half the network's prime time schedule was reality shows, people are going to start complaining. And that's when we're going to see action. And unfortunately, I think it's going to be like the baseball strike where both sides will lose. Viewers are going to find other ways to get their entertainment. They're going to go to movies. They're going to go to the Internet. They're going to go to cable. They're going to find other ways. I mean, already, we've had problems with network TV viewership being down. This is just going to make it worse.

MARTIN: Larry, why is it that - going back to the question of the people of color - you were telling us that writers of color tend to be in the more junior positions. They tend to be the first tier, writers assistants, things of that sort. But this has been on for a long time. Why is it that writers of color don't seem to be making more headway?

Mr. ANDRIES: The vast majority of writers in the Writers Guild work in television. And the vast majority of those had worked in Comedies. And the vast majority of those worked on black comedies. And that genre is a dying breed with the disappearance of the WB and UPN. And so, there are less opportunities to rise up a ladder.

MARTIN: And what do you think the outcome - and you said it's a blinking contest. It's either going to be a week or it's going to be a lot longer than that. At the end of it, I guess the - who comes out depends on how long the thing lasts and so forth. But do you think there's any prospect of more diversity at the end of an experience like this or does it - is one question really not affected by the other?

Mr. ANDRIES: I think, at the end of the day, the Hollywood is Hollywood. And this too shall pass after a while and we'll be back to status quo.

MARTIN: All right. Well, good luck to you.

Mr. DEGGANS: Thank you.

MARTIN: Larry Andries is a television writer and producer. And he's also a board member with the Organization of Black Screenwriters. He joined us from NPR West. We're also joined by TV and media critic Eric Deggans. He joined us from the Poynter Institute in St. Petersburg, Florida.

Larry, I'm going to say goodbye to you and thank you for joining us.

Mr. ANDRIES: Thank you. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

NPR transcripts are created on a rush deadline by an NPR contractor. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Accuracy and availability may vary. The authoritative record of NPR’s programming is the audio record.

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