Comedy Central Not Laughing About Looming Writers’ Strike


Politicians may be in for a treat this Halloween: Two of their most cutting critics, Comedy Central’s Jon Stewart and Stephen Colbert, could be sidelined by a looming TV writers’ strike next week.

A strike by the Writers Guild of America would likely – at least temporarily – defang The Daily Show with Jon Stewart and The Colbert Report. In all of cable TV, Comedy Central’s late-night marquee series would most immediately be impacted by a writer walkout -- and possibly be forced to go into reruns.    

The guild’s contract with TV producers and studios expires at the end of the day Wednesday, Oct. 31, and the union’s members have already authorized a strike. Both sides were negotiating late last week, but in a worse-case scenario there could be a walk-out when the pact expires Nov. 1.

The guild and the Alliance of Motion Picture and Television Producers remained at loggerheads over various issues, notably deadlocked over how writers should be compensated for content that is reused or created for new-media platforms; the union’s demand for higher residuals for DVDs; and whether basic-cable shows should be broadly covered by the new contract.

Currently, just big-budget cable dramas are typically covered by WGA contracts.

The producers have already modified their original proposal to the guild, making some concessions. On Thursday the AMPTP submitted an altered proposal, with changes that included consulting with a writer if a product is integrated into a storyline. And on Oct. 16, the producers withdrew their demand that the current residuals system be overhauled so that writers would only collect those fees after a studio recouped its basic costs for a show.  

But none of those changes from the AMPTP have been satisfactory for the WGA.

Earlier this week, executives at a number of basic and premium cable programmers said their network would be in fairly good shape if a strike were to occur next week. USA Network, FX, HBO and Showtime said they have wrapped up enough episodes of their scripted dramas – shows such as Law & Order: Criminal Intent, Nip/Tuck and The Wire -- to continue running the programs as scheduled, at least in the short term.

But it’s a different story for Comedy Central’s marquee late-night programs, The Daily Show with Jon Stewart and TheColbert Report, topical shows that make comedic hay out of the day’snews.

“We’ll be affected by a strike as will be everybody else,” Comedy Central spokesman Tony Fox said. “The two shows that are most impacted are The Daily Show and Colbert, because they air four nights a week.”

In the event of a strike, one possibility is that Comedy Central will air reruns of both programs for a period of time, according to Fox.   

The WGA has met with the writers of both The Daily Show and The Colbert Report, according to Michael Winship, president of the WGA East, and “everybody is very clear on what our position is.”

Stewart, who earlier this month extended his contract with Comedy Central to 2010, is not only host The Daily Show, but is one of its writers, as well as executive producer. 

 “Jon and Stephen [Colbert] are both members of the Writers Guild,” Winship said. “They both write for their shows under the Writers Guild contract. So our position on that is that they could not do any of the work that they normally do as a Writers Guild member in terms of writing and performing material on the show.”

Asked if Stewart would be free to continue doing his show, for example, by just conducting interviews of guests, Winship said, “If it’s not writing, that would be his decision to make. I wouldn’t want to put myself in his conscience at this point in time. But he knows what the rules are; that would be a decision that Jon would have to make.”

Stewart’s lawyer, Tom Hansen, couldn’t be reached for comment.

Winship was upbeat about negotiations continuing even after the WGA contract expires.          

“The sides are talking to each other,” he said. “People are starting to get away from their official positions and sort of moving away from talking at each other and actually now talking to each other. So I’m quite optimistic. We will continue talking as long as they are willing to bargain off our proposals.”

In some ways, the timing of a writer’s strike now would be fortuitous for cable. Many cable networks debut their original programming during the summer, so they aren’t anywhere near starting production for those shows.   

And cable networks that are premiering new series, or new episodes of existing shows, this fall or early next year may have also ducked the bullet from any writers’ strike because they have either neared or completed production of those programs.

But if the strike were lengthy, production on some scripted cable fare could be threatened. For example, USA has completed the first 10 episodes of Law & Order: CI, which started running Oct. 4. But the second half of that order, 12 episodes, still has to be produced, and could be stalled if there is a writers’ strike. Production of USA’s Burn Notice, set to begin early next year, would also be derailed by an ongoing WGA strike.   

In the case of FX, it has almost completed production of the first 14 episodes of its 22-installment order of Nip/Tuck. The show’s fifth-season premiere is scheduled for Tuesday, Oct. 30. But a long writers’ strike could halt production on the remaining installments.

In addition, further production on both the second seasons of FX’s Dirt and The Riches, which began Oct. 1, could also be impeded by any writers’ walkout.   

Production on Sci Fi Channel’s Eureka, as well as the last 10 installments of a 20-episode order of Battlestar Gallactica, would also be impacted by a prolonged writers’ strike.

Apart from The Daily Show and The Colbert Report, Comedy Central is in good shape, in terms of having production done, for most of its other series, including The Sarah Silverman Program and Mind of Mencia. 

“Most of the shows either aren’t in production or already have enough episodes written to get us through the spring,” Fox said.