LOS ANGELES – A few days ago, hopes were high that a deal to end a costly five-week strike by thousands of Hollywood writers was imminent.
But optimism that writers and producers would soon sign a new pact all but crumbled Friday, as talks broke down and the sides blamed each other for the stalled negotiations that have sidelined many prime-time and late-night TV shows.
"We're puzzled and disheartened by an ongoing WGA (Writers Guild of America) negotiating strategy that seems designed to delay or derail talks rather than facilitate an end to this strike," the Alliance of Motion Picture and Television Producers said in a statement.
In response, the guild said the chief alliance negotiator, Nick Counter, slammed the door on bargaining after presenting an ultimatum and before the union could respond to his latest proposal regarding crucial new-media compensation issues.
"As we prepared our counteroffer, at 6:05 p.m., Nick Counter came and said to us, in the mediator's presence, 'We are leaving. When you write us a letter saying you will take all these items off the table, we will reschedule negotiations with you,"' according to a union statement.
A detailed alliance announcement on the talks' collapse was released a short time later. Counter was unavailable Friday night for comment, the alliance said.
A letter the guild said it received from Counter said negotiations could resume only after the guild removed a half-dozen demands.
The guild said it remained "ready and willing to negotiate, no matter how intransigent our bargaining partners are, because the stakes are simply too high."
"If someone called tomorrow and said 'let's start on Sunday and we want to hear your counterproposal,' I'd say great," chief guild negotiator David Young told The Associated Press.
The writers guild represents 12,000 members, but not all are on strike, with about 2,000 or so news writers and others covered under a separate contract.
Just two days ago, the sides had expressed their first hint of optimism. But on Friday, it appeared that the industry's first walkout in 20 years was far from being resolved.
The entertainment industry contributes an estimated US$30 billion a year to the Los Angeles economy, or about US$80 million a day.
The alliance reiterated its position Friday that its latest offer aimed at settling a central contract issue — compensation for the Internet and other digital media — makes it "possible to find common ground."
Last week, the studios had proposed a flat US$250 payment for a year's use of an hourlong TV show on the Web. That contrasts with the $20,000-plus residual that writers now earn for a single network rerun of a TV episode.
Friday night, the guild said producers were holding to their US$250 offer and demanding that writers give up on proposals including unionization of animation and reality and, "most crucially, any proposal that uses distributor's gross as a basis for residuals."
As word of the breakdown spread, some writers expressed frustration.
"It's disheartening that a month into this, I'm not getting the overwhelming sense that we're getting any closer to a settlement," said Robert Port, a writer for the CBS series "Numb3rs." "I hope we can continue to negotiate and wrap this thing up."
Earlier Friday, in a letter sent to its members and released publicly, the guild said that "highly placed executives" have told some writers that the companies are preparing to abruptly end the talks by accusing the guild of an unwillingness to bargain.
The letter said any such anti-union claims are "absolutely untrue" and challenged studios to negotiate "day and night, through the Christmas and New Year's holidays" to reach a settlement.