When the Writers Guild of America first announced it would go on strike in early November, speculation swirled as to how long this impasse over residuals and online royalties would persist. But as the entertainment industry kicks off its 2008 programming in earnest today — some three weeks after strike negotiations last collapsed — all indications are that the picketing will continue for quite a while, even as some of those television shows most affected by the strike resume production.
On Wednesday, for the first time in eight weeks, fans of late-night personalities Jay Leno, Conan O'Brien, David Letterman, and Jimmy Kimmel will find something more than re-runs (Comedy Central regulars Jon Stewart and Stephen Colbert also plan to resume production on January 7), though even Mr. O'Brien has warned that, without his writers, the show "may very well be terrible." Industry watchers are eager to see just how Messrs. Leno, O'Brien, and Kimmel will structure their one-hour programs without the aid of scripted material — and also potentially without the company of A-list celebrities.
(Mr. Letterman's Worldwide Pants company reached a labor agreement with the striking writers on December 28, allowing his CBS show and that of Craig Ferguson to resume production with their writers. Mr. Letterman, a guild member for more than 30 years, will be able to use scripted monologues and his customary "Top 10" lists. His first guest will be Robin Williams.)
Given the way the Screen Actors Guild has thus far stood in solidarity with the writers, there is a standing belief among the WGA membership that few prominent actors will appear on these returning late-night shows as long as the strike continues.
"They know they can't write their own skits or monologues, and we're hoping actors stay away, so yes, we're wondering what sort of contortions they are going to have to go through to perform," said Michael Winship, East coast president of the WGA, who spoke with the Sun before the holidays. "I think you're going to see an awful lot of college professors promoting their books."
Yet while Wednesday's late-night revival marks an attempt by some in the television industry to return to business-as-usual, what few observers have begun to analyze is the way the current strike is poised to affect — and perhaps decimate — this year's movie awards season.
In mid-December the Writers Guild denied waivers for both the Golden Globes and Oscars ceremonies, refusing to allow writers to script portions of the January 13 Golden Globes event, and denying the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences permission to use film clips during its February 24 telecast.
An even scarier prospect for both ceremonies (as well as for ABC and NBC, which plan to broadcast the events) is that if the strike is still underway, movie stars may refuse to attend the ceremonies, much less present or receive awards. Mr. Stewart — a vocal member of the Writers Guild and advocate of the strike — who is currently scheduled to host the Oscars, may even cancel.
"We would hope that performers would decline to appear," Mr. Winship said. "And if that happens, I can't really imagine what the scenario would be like. We're hoping for a resolution, we mean no disrespect to the Hollywood Foreign Press or the Academy, but this is part of the reason we're doing this — to demonstrate the profound impact that writers have on the industry as a whole."
If the missing scripts or celebrities led to the cancellation of the Golden Globes or the Academy Awards — or if an empty red carpet led to a staggering loss of ratings — the impact Mr. Winship speaks of could be significant.
"The awards shows definitely have an impact on box office," Chad Hartigan, a box-office analyst with Exhibitor Relations, said. "A funny acceptance speech at the Golden Globes can do wonders for a small art-house film. If they cancelled the ceremonies, or just issued a press release with a list of the winners, many studios who were counting on a bump from the ceremonies would probably take a bath on their smaller, artistic projects."
Beyond the box-office or the TV ratings, some are also speculating as to whether the current strike could have a major impact on the current Oscar competition — potentially affecting what actors and actresses walk away with this year's statutes.
"It's a campaign just like any other, and in the past, we've seen lots of actors use talk shows as a way to win over the Academy," Sasha Stone, editor of the online awards site AwardsDaily.com., said. "So if the celebrities refuse to appear on these late-night shows, it could have a huge impact. Just look at Abigail Breslin [from "Little Miss Sunshine,"], who made it to the Oscars thanks to her talk show appearances. No one really knew who this little kid was, and then she started showing up and talking so elegantly. Or going back even further, look at Kevin Spacey, with 'American Beauty,' who hit the talk show circuit, or Roberto Benigni, who started acting crazy on talk shows and then won the Oscar he did not deserve to win."
Ms. Stone, like many who weigh in on the annual awards cycle, said she views the Oscars as a competition decided in large part by politics and popularity, in which one's hopes of winning can be devastated by such things as a breakup or divorce, or by the fact that no one inside the industry knows the nominee personally. Given all this, talk shows offer stars a chance to promote themselves, entice voters to watch their titles, and, if required, do a bit of spin control. This year, in particular, Ms. Stone points to the likes of Johnny Depp ("Sweeney Todd") and Marion Cotillard ("La Vie En Rose") as contenders who could benefit greatly from late-night sit-downs on the major networks.
All celebrities or awards aside, Ms. Stone said the ongoing strike, and its potential to make telecasts all but impossible, could also have a major impact on the Academy itself.
"The telecast is so important to the Academy's annual income; it's a major part of what keeps it going," she said. "Advertising is already hard enough, with all the ratings disappearing, but one major reason people tune in is the stars. If there aren't any stars, or if the ceremony is ultimately cancelled, this could be devastating for them."