James Denton on Writers Guild strike
Star of "Desperate Housewives" speaks about long-running writers’ strike
PAUL JAY, SENIOR EDITOR: Your take on the Writers Guild strike, what’s happening. Why is there such stand off for so long? What do the studios have in mind? And where do you see this all headed?
JAMES DENTON: You know, my honest opinion is I think both sides wanted a strike. I think that was the problem. I think both sides wanted and needed a stoppage. And now it’s almost like Iraq—not nearly as important, but the outcome, as far as there’s no exit strategy. They don’t know where to go now. And both sides, as I understand it, aren’t even talking, which is really frustrating, because it supposedly by the middle of February will have cost LA county a billion dollars. People losing their homes; carpenters, electric, grip, dry cleaners; bars and restaurants that are empty. I was going to do a big kitchen remodeling, hoping to do it finally this season. And then I heard about the strike. I haven’t had a paycheck since October. We’re lucky that we’re really well paid for what we do and very grateful for it. But still you watch your savings go away. And so people stop spending, and you know how that affects the economy. So the trickle down is really mind-blowing. And there’s no end in sight. Sunday night was our last episode. Twenty million viewers—our biggest audience in two years—and then we shut down. It’s really, really frustrating. And, maybe, it may end up, according to our creator Marc Cherry; it may be the season finale. That may be all we have. And if that’s the case, and we don’t get back in the next three or four weeks, there won’t be a fall ’08. And if that happens, there’s really no incentive for them to get back at all. So there may be no new episodes. Whether your favorite show is [inaudible] or Lost or Grey’s Anatomy, whatever it is, you won’t have it for as much as a year and a half or two years. And I don’t think anybody realizes the severity and the fact that the writers are fighting a really worthwhile battle. I mean, the average writer makes $62,000 a year—a lot of money where I came from, not so much in the current LA climate. And all they’re asking is to be paid for what they create, and currently they get zero for what is sold on the Internet by the studios. I don’t think it’s too much to ask to give them a tiny—I think they’re asking for two cents now.
JAY: What effect is this going to have on the other unions? There’s other contracts coming up in the spring.
DENTON: I don’t think it’ll affect the Directors Guild much. I think the Directors Guild may end up making a deal quicker. Their contracts up in June. And they never struck. Well, they struck one time for five minutes. Literally, five minutes. Their issues are very different. They don’t get paid the same way. Actors, on the other side, are just like the writers in that what deal they get will probably dictate what deal we get. The residuals
systems are very similar. We don’t get paid for anything that’s sold online. I have so many friends, who watch Housewives on the Internet or podcast or whatever, and we don’t get a penny, which today is not back-breaking, but in a few years, when your TV has an ethernet cable instead of a coax cable, you know, it’s a computer, and it changes how people get paid. And I don’t think any of the unions are willing to take the risk that we all have computers in our living room and nobody gets paid for content that they created for the networks. So it’s a very legitimate, worthwhile cause, but they do have to compromise, and the sooner they sit down, the better.
JAY: Is there an attempt here by the studios to try to really restructure the industry in two ways? One is break the back of the unions, to some extent. And number two, do they even want to change what kind of programming’s on television? Are they actually losing interest in high-end drama?
DENTON: Yes and yes. I agree a hundred percent. I think they’re more than willing. Rupert Murdoch said about the strike, it’s fine with me. Those programs are so expensive. I’m saving money. Because he has American Idol. I don’t think he’d be quite so arrogant if he didn’t, because no other network feels that way. There’s only one American Idol to go around. And I think when they flood it with all these really, really low-cost programming—as you know, it costs nothing to put on a game show or a talent show. And I know it’s attractive to the networks and they’re willing to try it. So I think right now they’re in no rush to make a deal, because they want to give it a run and see if people will watch it. The problem is, when they don’t, they don’t come back. We found that before. There was, like, the commercial strike earlier, and you send the work somewhere else, and people, let them find another way to do things, and it’s hard to get them back. So it’s certainly self-defeating. But I do believe that they’d like to break the union. I know that part of the reason this is dragging on is because if the producers can cripple the actors monetarily, we won’t be able to afford to strike in June. At least that’s their belief. But at that point it’ll be such a matter of principle. And we really can’t afford to go with the deal they want. We’ll still strike, but I can’t imagine what it’s going to do to the business and the economy and the viewers who go somewhere else for entertainment and never come back. Ultimately, that only costs the studios.
JAY: What about the talk shows going back on?
DENTON: Disappointing. I mean, I really respect David Letterman for what he did. You know, he paid his employees when they were down, when they weren’t working, which is very admirable. You know, he got together, Worldwide Pants struck a deal with the Writers Guild that the writers were happy with, and the writers went back to work with the blessing of the union, the way it should have been. I’m not sure what kind of effect that’s going to have. I don’t know if we would have been better off if no one had gone back, or if these deals start being made on the side, the fragmentation might bring the producers back to the table. Nobody seems to know the answer. Disappointing that Leno and Conan went back, basically crossing the picket line. They’ll have trouble getting actors on, that’s for sure, but for now they can have presidential candidates.
JAY: Stewart? Stewart’s going back?
DENTON: Stewart is going back. I have to believe they may be making a deal, because I know their writers, I know enough about Jon. I’m curious to see how that works, ’cause that will really surprise me if he goes back without a deal agreed to by the Writers Guild. I bet they’re making a deal similar to Worldwide Pants, but I’m not sure.
JAY: And why should other people care about the Writers Guild strike? Why should the rest of America care?
DENTON: You know, it’s one of those things. People feel so differently. You know, organized labor’s very polarizing. Many people, depending on where they fall in the business world, have different beliefs about it. LA’s a union town. Without a Screen Actors Guild we wouldn’t have a residual program, we wouldn’t have health benefits, we wouldn’t have retirement. So it’s one of those things that, depending on where you fall on organized labor, that’s where you’re going to fall on this. But it’s a group of people that are dependent on the union for all those benefits I mentioned. Moving into the future with the Internet, trying to move with technology, and the producers are just not willing to give which is understandable—nobody wants to give away money. But it’s just not realistic. So it’s an important cause for anybody who is dependent on a union. And that’s why it’s important for the Teamsters to support it, which they have, and the Screen Actors Guild to support the Writers Guild, because, you know, we all know what unions have meant to American labor. So this is just another battle. Even though writers seem like a bunch of rich guys, it’s still the same battle.
Please note that TRNN transcripts are typed from a recording of the program; The Real News Network cannot guarantee their complete accuracy.