In their first full day away from their computer keyboards, the Writers Guild of America members scored several important victories. And those who are not on the picket lines -- primarily television's so-called show runners -- found themselves figuratively on the line, wrestling over whether to return to work.
CBS said production on its comedy "The New Adventures of Old Christine" was halted, and ABC said it was delaying the premiere of the series "Cashmere Mafia." At the risk of losing their jobs, some members of Teamsters Local 399 decided not to cross the picket lines, and that action might have shut down a small number of shows, union officers said.
More ominous, perhaps, was the sudden suspension of special deals that studios extend to star writers. Fox and CBS began notifying some of their top talent that they would stop paying for staff and development, a tactic other studios were considering.
Less than 12 hours after negotiations between the WGA and the Alliance of Motion Picture and Television Producers collapsed in a West Hollywood hotel meeting room Sunday night, WGA members launched boisterous demonstrations against the major movie and TV studios in Los Angeles and New York, with several top performers visiting the front lines to lend support.
The suddenly out-of-work Leno handed out doughnuts to writers picketing NBC's Burbank studio. "I don't know what we're going to do. I don't know how long it is going to last," Leno said as he distributed boxes of Krispy Kremes. "I've been working with these people for 20 years. Without them I'm not funny. I'm a dead man."
The daylong rallies, scheduled to run until further notice, appeared designed to galvanize the union's resolve -- the last WGA strike in 1988 lasted 22 weeks and cost the industry an estimated $500 million -- and rally support for the WGA's bargaining position.
"You want people to be aware of what's at stake," Carlton Cuse, a writer and executive producer on ABC's "Lost" and a member of the WGA's negotiating committee, said as he took up a picket sign in front of the gates of his employer, Walt Disney Co. "We are the primary creative artists in this medium."
Regular viewers of late-night television will immediately notice the disappearance of their favorite shows, but television dramas and comedies, whose scripts are written well in advance, will continue to appear as programmed for weeks if not months to come. Movies, which often take two years to produce, will arrive in the multiplex as scheduled for at least the next year.
Several issues divide the 10,000-member WGA and the producers, but the most contentious point is supplemental payments, or residuals, for TV series and movies shown on computers and new-media devices such as cellphones and video iPods. No contract talks are scheduled between the sides.
"If you look at iTunes, 'Hannah Montana' and several other Disney shows are among the most avidly downloaded shows -- they are hugely successful on the Internet," Steven Peterman, an Emmy-winning "Murphy Brown" writer and "Hannah Montana" executive producer said as he picketed Disney. "And we make no money from that -- zero."
Nick Counter, the president of the producers alliance, said he was disappointed that the WGA had gone on strike. "A strike is obviously painful for all involved. It costs the companies money and it costs the writers money."
If screenwriters feel they receive scant appreciation from the networks and studios, the people uttering their lines in front of the cameras were openly supportive. In apparent violation of Screen Actors Guild rules saying actors are obligated to show up to work during a writers strike, Carell refused to cross picket lines to work on "The Office," according to an NBC source.
In front of Paramount Pictures, "Dirty Sexy Money" actor William Baldwin served coffee and joined the picket lines. In New York, "Saturday Night Live" comedian Amy Poehler joined a large contingent of writers and actors from the show on the picket line in front of the Rockefeller Center offices of NBC, a subsidiary of General Electric Co.
"All the writers are asking for is to be fairly compensated for all this new media," she said, noting that the strike may force the cancellation of this coming week's show with Dwayne "The Rock" Johnson. Poehler, like many "SNL" cast members, contributes material for the program but is not listed as a writer. She said actors felt torn about the labor impasse. "I think a lot of actors are being made to make some really hard choices," she said.
Also caught in the middle of the walkout are the TV show runners, who serve as both writers and executive producers. As WGA members, they are obligated to stop writing; as producers, they have to ensure that the show somehow goes on.
Warren Leight, the show runner of USA Network's "Law & Order: Criminal Intent," was wrestling with that very issue on the picket line. Just before the strike began Sunday at midnight, Leight faxed in a "Criminal Intent" rewrite. Although Leight said he would not write another word until the strike was over, he may be called upon for his input on editing and other responsibilities he has as a show runner. "I'm trying to figure it out," he said.
What's not as complicated, Leight said, is the need to strike. "They made us an offer we had to refuse," he said of the studios. "My sense is they wanted it to come to this."