Fortune editor at large
February 13 2008: 1:58 PM EST
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Hollywood's lasting labor pains

A casualty of the strike may be the writers themselves.

By Richard Siklos, editor at large

NBC Universal's Jeff Zucker says the network is making big changes in how it develops shows.

(Fortune Magazine) -- On the surface, the Writers Guild strike was a showdown between writers and suits over compensation from new methods of distributing content. But, looking back over the three-month walkout, it also provided handy cover for the powers that be to derail the creative community's gravy train and rethink the way TV shows are made.

Their chief weapon was a legal tenet known as force majeure (literally, "greater force"), a clause in most writers' contracts that allowed the studios to cancel deals in the event of a Writers Guild work stoppage. For years network bosses have talked about trimming development deals for writers and scaling back the annual literary boondoggle known as pilot season. But, until the strike, it was largely talk.

The first and most vocal sign of real lasting changes came in January, when NBC Universal's Jeff Zucker announced that the network will develop fewer TV pilots. (See correction at end of story.) Additionally, he plans to have his lagging network bow out of holding a big gala for the upfronts - the expensive and cumbersome spring ritual in which networks preview, promote, and presell the fall schedule to advertisers with extravaganzas at venues including New York City's Radio City Music Hall.

"Many of the vanity deals and the big overall deals just haven't paid off," Zucker recently told Fortune. "We want to revitalize the industry. We don't want to go out of business."

Though they are not as vocal as Zucker - whose Peacock network has been in a slump and is airing more unscripted programming - the other networks and studio bosses are making similar moves. Both CBS's Leslie Moonves, and Bob Iger, the CEO of ABC owner Walt Disney (DIS, Fortune 500), have also said they will scale back their upfront bonanzas. In doing so, all are underscoring the notion that a TV "season" is something of a throwback to days when the new shows were timed to coincide with the debut of new car models out of Detroit. (That said, none of the networks want to do away entirely with the idea of having advertisers book billions of dollars of business in advance.)

The major casualty of force majeure has been the "overall" deal. These glitzy holdovers from the pre-cable days of the Big Three networks paid anywhere from $500,000 to $2 million a year to writer-producers who would be given a paycheck, an office, and an assistant at a studio or network in exchange for sending their ideas along for consideration. Each year, show ideas culled from the writers under contract - along with pitches from outside - would go into development. Across the big broadcast networks, some 150 pilots could be developed to various stages of completion, and a handful would finally air at a cost that could reach $10 million for a one-hour drama.

"It was an awesome deal for writers that became unworkable financially for the studios as people's eyes moved from their televisions to their computers," says Jill Soloway, a writer-producer who lost one an overall deals last month with ABC affiliate Touchstone. She was one of many to get the ax around Jan. 14, a day industry publications dubbed Black Monday after close to 100 development deals were slashed by CBS, NBC, Fox, ABC, and others.

Soloway, who worked on ABC's "Grey's Anatomy" and HBO's "Six Feet Under", is philosophical. She still has another development deal at Warner Brothers and is working on a pilot with J.J. Abrams, the creator of "Lost" and "Alias." Plus, she says, she's thinking about writing video games. "Your average 15- or 16- year-old is online or playing video games," she says. "He's not watching 'Friends'."

Not even celebs are immune: Also in January, CBS and ABC canceled the overall deals of Hugh Jackman and Taye Diggs, respectively. (Stars like Jackman and Diggs could get such deals as part of their agreement to "attach" themselves to network shows - not always to great effect, as witnessed by Jackman's short-lived CBS series "Viva Laughlin.") CBS Inc. chairman Leslie Moonves said in a recent interview that he was not planning anything quite as sweeping as NBC's move. Yet all the networks have cut back meaningfully. "This will force changes in how we do business, and probably we've been heading that way for a while," Moonves says.

No one is sure how long the new austerity will last - especially if the writers are back but the hits don't come. But even as Hollywood's creatives adjust to the fallout from the strike's unintended consequences, many knew this day would eventually come. "I hate it, but I'm not surprised by it," says Rick Rosen, co-founder of Endeavor talent agency. "It is going to be an awakening. Now our challenge is to make hits in a more efficient way."

Correction: An earlier version of this story incorrectly said that NBC Universal's Jeff Zucker announced that the network would develop no pilots. To top of page

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