Striking Writers May Be Back to Work Wednesday After Guild Recommends Contract

The Writers Guild of America moved swiftly Sunday toward a resolution of its three-month-old strike, with guild leaders deciding to recommend a tentative contract to members and ask them to vote on a quick end to the walkout.

By calling for separate votes on ending the strike and accepting the new three-year deal, the union cleared the way for the entertainment industry to return to work almost immediately.

Membership meetings will be held Tuesday in New York and Los Angeles to allow writers to decide whether the strike should be brought to a speedy end, said Patric Verrone, president of the guild's West Coast branch.

"This is the best deal this guild has bargained for in 30 years," Verrone said.

The tentative contract secures writers a share of the burgeoning digital-media market, he said, including compensation for Internet-delivered TV shows and movies.

"If they (producers) get paid, we get paid. This contract makes that a reality," Verrone said. But, he added, "it is not all we hoped for and it is not all we deserved."

Still, the union's negotiating committee recommended Saturday that the contract be accepted, and the West guild's board of directors and the East Coast guild's council agreed. They called for a membership ratification vote, which will be conducted by mail over about two weeks.

Member approval of the contract and the strike's end appeared likely. At heavily attended membership meetings Saturday in New York and Los Angeles, there was resounding support for the proposed deal that could put TV and movie production back on track, salvage the rest of the TV season and remove a boycott threat from this month's Oscars.

Verrone thanked television viewers who "tolerated three months of reruns and reality TV."

The guild's major bargaining concession to studios was agreeing to take unionization of animation and reality TV shows off the table, Verrone said. The guild has said it still intends to pursue those goals.

The Alliance of Motion Picture and Television Producers, which represents the studios, said it had no comment Sunday on the guild's actions.

The American Federation of Television and Radio Artists, which represents more than 70,000 performers, broadcasters and others, lauded the writers guild for winning gains in digital media.

The federation is preparing to begin its own TV contract talks and intends to be "focused, deliberate, and prudent as we engage with the employers to negotiate the best possible agreements for performers," its president, Roberta Reardon, said in a statement.

Despite friction between the federation and the Screen Actors Guild, the two groups traditionally negotiate together on a contract covering feature films and primetime TV. That contract expires in June.

Show runners -- industry lingo for the executive producers in charge of a TV series -- are expected to be back at work Monday, preparing for the return of writers as soon as Wednesday, industry members said.

Although show runners are also guild members, they are allowed to work while the strike remains in effect as long as they focus only on producer-related tasks.

The strike's end would allow many hit series to return this spring for what's left of the current season, airing anywhere from four to seven new episodes. Shows with marginal audience numbers may not return until fall or could be canceled.

A minimum of four weeks would be needed for producers to start from scratch with their first post-strike episodes of comedies and get them on the air, industry members said. A drama would require six to eight weeks from concept to broadcast.

"It will be all hands on deck for the writing staff," said Chris Mundy, co-executive producer of CBS' drama "Criminal Minds." He hopes to get a couple of scripts in the pipeline right away, with about seven episodes airing by the end of May.

"It's a real balancing act," he said, "to get up and running as fast as possible, but not let the quality slip."

Negotiating committee chairman John Bowman said a turning point in negotiations was last month's Golden Globes, when the star-studded ceremony was scrapped after actors refused to cross writers' picket lines.

The Globes showed the strength of the writers' resolve and solidarity, Bowman said.

The threat of a similar fate for this month's Academy Awards also was a powerful bargaining chip, said chief negotiator David Young.

"It was going to be a huge thing for the industry to lose the Oscars," Young said. The Feb. 24 ceremony now appears likely to proceed in its full glory and with writers on board to script host and presenter banter.

Academy spokeswoman Leslie Unger said Saturday that Oscar organizers were hopeful, but that writing on the ceremony could not begin until the strike was over.

The strike, the first in 20 years for the writers guild, began Nov. 5 and included bitter public exchanges between the guild and the producers alliance. Talks collapsed in December.

In January, the studios reached an agreement in separate negotiations with the Directors Guild of America. Top media company executives, including Peter Chernin of News Corp. and Robert Iger of The Walt Disney Co., asked the writers to resume bargaining.

What were termed informal talks between the executives and guild leaders led to the tentative contract that writers will be voting on.

Together, the East and West Coast guilds represent 12,000 writers, with about 10,000 of those involved in the strike that has cost the Los Angeles area economy alone an estimated $1 billion or more.

Based on the guild's summary of the deal, it's similar to the agreement reached with directors.

It provides union jurisdiction over projects created for the Internet based on certain guidelines, sets compensation for streamed, ad-supported programs and increases residual payments for downloaded movies and TV programs.

Writers would get a maximum flat fee of about $1,200 for streamed programs in the deal's first two years and then get a percentage of a distributor's gross in year three -- the last point an improvement on the directors deal, which remains at the flat payment rate.

Both writers and directors guild deals include a provision that compensation for ad-supported streaming doesn't kick in until after a window of between 17 to 24 days deemed "promotional" by the studios.

Some writers have balked at that, saying Internet traffic is heaviest in the first few days.

Click here for an explanation on how the vote works.