Strike’s No Joke to Comedy


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

A strike by the Writers Guild of America likely would — at least temporarily — defang The Daily Show With Jon Stewart and The Colbert Report, Comedy Central’s late-night marquee shows. In all of cable TV, those signature series would most immediately be affected by a writer walkout — and possibly be forced 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 worst-case scenario there could be a walkout when the pact expires Nov. 1.

The guild and the Alliance of Motion Picture and Television Producers remained at loggerheads over various issues, particularly:

  • How to figure compensation for content that is reused or created for new-media platforms, and how to divvy up digital revenue.
  • Higher residual payments for DVD sales, with writers looking to double their compensation from about four cents to eight cents per DVD.
  • Having “all made-for-basic cable programs” covered by WGA contracts, not just high-budget scripted dramas, which has been the case in the past.

The producers have already modified their original proposal to the guild, making some concessions. Last 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 to the WGA.

Last week, a number of basic and premium cable networks said they would be in fairly good shape if a strike does occur this week. Programmers such as 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 late-night programs, The Daily Show With Jon Stewart and The Colbert Report, topical shows that make comedic hay of the day’s news.

“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 for both The Daily Show and The Colbert Report, according to WGA East president Michael Winship, 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 the host of The Daily Show, he is also one of its writers and its 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.

A prolonged strike would threaten production on a number of scripted cable shows, For example, USA has completed the first 10 episodes of L&O: Criminal Intent, 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.

In the case of FX, a long strike could halt production of the final eight episodes of a 22-installment order for Nip/Tuck. In addition, production of both FX’s Dirt and The Riches, which began Oct. 1, could also be affected by any writers’ strike.