East Coast Writers Take Their Case to the Streets

Andrew Tangel and Jacque Steinberg report on the WGAE's informational picket outside Rockefeller Center on Friday morning:

Members of the Writers Guild of America East took their contract dispute to the public this morning, gathering at Rockefeller Plaza to hand out fliers with their reasons for going on strike against entertainment producers. Organizers estimated more than 50 writers took part in handing out leaflets near the ice rink and a live taping of the NBC's "Today" show.

If it was unusual for the Guild to publicize its cause, it was just as strange for behind-the-scenes writers to take the limelight.

The event was probably "much nerdier" than a typical labor demonstration, said Steve Bodow, the head writer for "The Daily Show with Jon Stewart."

"I think it's very important that the public to know what writers look like," Mr. Bodow mused.

But the crafters of scripts and monologues for some of the most popular American television shows did indeed sound like labor activists.

"The majority of writers are barely making a living and the majority of writers' careers are very short-lived," said Chris Albers, a writer for "Late Night With Conan O'Brien." "So we feel that if these companies are going to be making a lot of money off of what we create, and we only have a few years to be in the game, then it's fair to compensate us so that we can support our families."

If writers do strike on Monday morning as planned, television viewers will first notice the difference in the entertainment talk shows. "The Daily Show With Jon Stewart," "The Colbert Report," "Late Night With Conan O'Brien," and "The Tonight Show With Jay Leno" will all revert to repeats on Monday, at least for the time being.

Kimberly Izzo-Emmet, a CBS spokeswoman, said producers of "The Late Show with David Letterman" and "Late Late Show with Craig Ferguson" were "waiting to see what happens" before deciding what to do next. Those shows were transmitting a similar message directly to representatives for the entertainers and others who had been booked as guests for next week. An ABC spokeswoman said the network was readying several contingency plans for its late-night talk show, "Jimmy Kimmel Live," which she declined to specify.

Should those hosts attempt, at some point, to put on new episodes of their shows without benefit of writers, then the Writers Guild would be watching closely. Mr. Letterman and Mr. O'Brien, among others, are credited as writers on their shows, as well as hosts. While the guild would probably permit them to appear on a show stocked with interviews, comics and musicians, those hosts could draw the guild's ire if they told too many one-liners in a monologue, which would suggest they or someone else was writing. "If David Letterman wanted to go on his show and tap dance, we can't stop him," said Sherry Goldman, a spokeswoman for the Writers Guild of America East. "We prefer he not. And he can't write."

Still, there is precedent for a host's appearing during a strike. After initially putting on reruns during the last Writers Guild strike, in 1988, Johnny Carson and Mr. Letterman eventually reappeared on "Tonight" and "Late Night," their respective NBC shows at the time. In addition to booking extra guests, Mr. Carson at one point filled air time by perusing the family photo albums of his sidekick, Ed McMahon. Mr. Letterman often relied on a bit he called "Hal Gurnee's Network Time Killers," named for the show's director.

This time, the shows are already making light of the contract dispute. During Thursday's show, Mr. O'Brien touted his writers' intelligent brand of humor, which he said was "never idiotic and arbitrary." Then he introduced a cactus wearing a chef hat and playing "We Didn't Start the Fire" on the flute.

At Rockefeller Center this morning, some passersby, like Linda Johnson of St. Paul, Minn., were sympathetic to the writers.

"I don't know a lot about it, but they should go on strike if they're not getting a fair deal," Ms. Johnson said. Others were unaware of the conflict's details, but said they hoped to continue to see fresh content.

"If it forced reruns, that would upset me," said Lucas Grosse, 27, of Omaha, Neb.

Mr. Grosse, a copy editor in town to watch the New York City Marathon on Sunday, also offered his services should the writers strike. He has no experience in writing for television, however.

"I've never really thought about, it but I could do it," he said.

Former Gov. George Pataki of New York also walked by the writers but offered only qualified support.

"I love creativity," Mr. Pataki said, apparently in a hurry to get somewhere else. "I didn't come out to support the writers, but it's nice to say hello to them and wish them well."

Asked if he sided with them, Mr. Pataki, a Republican, replied, "I hope they can get it resolved, and I understand their concerns," then briskly walked away.

 

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