Readers lucky enough to have Foxtel would have noticed that their daily fix of Jon Stewart is lacking its usual topical zing. That’s because The Daily Show, along with Letterman, Leno, and other nightly talk shows that rely on a team of writers churning out jokes, has been forced into re-runs since contract negotiations between producers and writers broke down on Sunday night and every screenwriter in America went on strike.

The dramas will feel the pinch by Christmas. Big dramas, too. Desperate Housewives, Lost, Grey’s Anatomy, 24 – these shows generate huge ratings and huge dollars but have run out of scripts to film and have nothing to broadcast but the episodes already in the can. On average this is about enough to get them to the end of the year. Just. After that, saddle up for “special encore screenings” and (ideally) Mork & Mindy reruns.

The sticking point in the contract negotiation is residuals, the fees paid to writers for additional broadcasts of their work. The writers have seen the trucks of money being dropped at the studios’ doors for DVD sales, and are bright enough to understand that the internet is going to play a huge part in the distribution of content over the next ten years or so. They want a piece of the action in the form of bigger residuals for DVD and “new media”. But the studios argue that they need the revenue from DVD sales to pay the spiraling costs of production, and that no-one knows how much income the internet will generate, so it’s pointless to negotiate on it now.

Either way, the writers say they’re not going to budge, and the producers say they’ll wait as long as it takes. In the meantime, the idea of polishing up the CV and hawking myself around to desperate studios as a gun for hire did occur to me. That was until I received a “scabs will be punished” email from the Australian Writers’ Guild early this week. It’s impossible to get a writing gig in the States without a union card, and the Australian Guild made it very clear to its members that it will furnish its American partners with the names of any strikebreakers. The guilty will be blackballed by the Writers’ Guild of America, and they’ll never work in that town again.

Which is probably fair enough.

Peter Fray

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