Hollywood writers begin strike after talks collapse

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LOS ANGELES, Nov 5 (Reuters) US film and television writers went on strike today, after last-minute talks aimed at averting the Writers Guild of America's first strike in almost two decades collapsed.

The strike is expected to shut down many sitcoms and send popular late-night talk shows such as NBC's ''The Tonight Show With Jay Leno'' and CBS' ''Late Show With David Letterman,'' immediately into reruns because they rely on a stream of topical jokes.

The members of the union's East Coast arm went on strike at the designated deadline of 12:01 a.m. EST (1031 IST). Their West Coast counterparts followed them three hours later.

The East Coast walkout led to the collapse of 10-hour-long talks in Los Angeles between the union and the Alliance of Motion Picture and Television Producers (AMPTP), which represents the studios.

The two sides have been mired in contract negotiations for months, but hit an impasse primarily over demands by writers for higher fees, or ''residuals,'' derived from the sale of movies and TV programs on DVDs and the Internet.

''Notwithstanding the fact that negotiations were ongoing, the WGA decided to start their strike in New York,'' AMPTP president Nick Counter said in a statement. ''When we asked if they would 'stop the clock' for the purpose of delaying the strike to allow negotiations to continue, they refused.'' A prolonged strike could cost hundreds of millions of dollars in lost revenues and wages.

Even though studios have stockpiled scripts in preparation for a strike, production of many sitcoms is expected to shut down this week since writers will not be able to go on set and offer last-minute rewrites. The impact on movies is seen as less immediate since the major studios already have scripts for next year's projects.

The WGA, which represents roughly 12,000 screenwriters, said it withdrew its demand for a higher royalty payment on DVDs, a demand that the AMPTP had last week described as a ''complete roadblock to any further progress.'' But it said the studios refused to budge on such issues as payment for Internet downloads and streaming video.

PICKET LINES WGA members in Los Angeles earlier loaded trucks with picket signs, bottled water and tables to prepare for demonstrations.

Picket lines will go up at 14 major film and TV studios including Walt Disney Co.'s movie operations and ABC network, Time Warner Inc's Warner Bros., Viacom Inc's Paramount Pictures, CBS Corp's CBS, and News Corp.'s Fox.

Union members have been told that picketing is compulsory, and to hand over unfinished work to the union to ensure that that there is no furtive writing.

The strike poses a dilemma for writers who are also producers or creators of their shows.

''I have to figure out how to strike and picket myself,'' said Spike Feresten, a former writer/producer on the ''Seinfeld'' show who now has his own weekly talk show on Fox. ''How do you egg yourself? How does that work?'' The last major Hollywood strike was a Writers Guild walkout in 1988 that lasted 22 weeks, delayed the start of the fall TV season and cost the industry an estimated 500 million dp;;ars.

Los Angeles economist Jack Kyser said a similar strike now could result in at least 1 billion dollars in economic losses.

REUTERS PD ND1448

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