walk the line

The WGA strike continues in the USA. I admire the courage of the writers who walk the picket every day.

So, the talks shows are back on air, and only two–Late Night with David Letterman and The Late Late Show with Craig Ferguson–have come back with their writers. The rest: The Tonight Show with Jay Leno and Jimmy Kimmel Live in Los Angeles, and Late Night with Conan O’Brien in New York are not using writers, and I’m sure it’s going to become obvious quite quickly.

The likes of Leno and O’Brien are in a tough place because they genuinely support the writers, but if they don’t put their shows back on the air their entire crew will be fired. Both of them have been paying their people from their own pockets for the past month to keep them on salary. But, their shows now have a WGA picket. David Letterman has the moral high ground, and is one of only two show whose guests don’t have to cross a picket line. That does matter to some people. Also, since Leno is a member of the WGA he is not supposed to write any material while the strike is going on. This puts him in a particularly ugly spot. He has to do his monologues, but with what? I assume he can crib cryptic one liners and hope it will prompt him with material: “make fun of George Bush”, “a zinger about Obama and Clinton”, “get funny guests.”

Letterman’s first list of 2008 was the Top 10 Demands of Striking Writers, and striking writers read them out, including Nora Ephron. I was amused that he used a number of writers from The Daily Show with Jon Stewart and The Colbert Report. It was a pointed inclusion, because both of those variety shows go on the air next week without their writers.

Letterman is lucky (and prescient) because his production company Worldwide Pants owns both shows, and licenses them to CBS. That meant he could negotiate a separate deal with the WGA, and agree to the union’s terms. It’s all about power. Letterman realised at some point that the more financial control he had over his show the better he could determine what he could and could not do with the programme. It’s a valuable lesson for anyone who wants to establish creative control over their careers.

Best of luck to all screenwriters on strike during 2008. It’s a tough beginning to the New Year. May your struggle be short and successful.

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