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Fontana expects a lengthy strike by writers

Tom Fontana would rather be writing episodes of his next NBC series, "The Philanthropist." But instead, the Buffalo native was on the picket line Monday with Tina Fey and the cast of "Saturday Night Live" in front of NBC's headquarters at 30 Rock.
The irony couldn't have been more obvious. The celebrated writer of "St. Elsewhere," "Homicide" and "Oz," realizes that philanthropy isn't on the minds of the negotiators for the seven companies and studios that the writers essentially work for.

Fontana, who until recently was the vice president of the Writers Guild East and now is president of the Writers Guild East Foundation, is the perfect choice to explain the writers' point of view. He said the strike issues are as simple as accessing the Internet today.

"If they get paid, we get paid," explained Fontana. "The Internet has seismically changed the industry in which we work. . . . The way we have made money over the last 50 years is rapidly -- like the Arctic Circle with global warming -- becoming outmoded. There is a new revenue source, all this new media. All we're saying is, 'OK, we realize we're going to lose our income from the traditional media [syndication, foreign, second-run] and you're going to make billions and billions and billions and billions of dollars.' Which they have already said to Wall Street. And we want a relatively small piece of that." He said the union is asking for about 8 cents out of $15 in new revenue.

"When they go before stockholders, they say the good times are coming," added Fontana. "When they come to us, they come hat in hand, 'we're broke.' "

Fontana is troubled because of news reports that suggest the striking Writers Guild consists of 12,000 wealthy people. He said 50 percent of the writers in the Guild make between $25,000 and $50,000 or don't work at all.

"I don't need this strike," said Fontana. "In fact, it is hurting me because I'm supposed to go into production with 'The Philanthropist' in January, which is now obviously put on hold. But being an old union man, the strongest have to protect the weakest. And right now there are people whose families are in jeopardy. It is as basic a labor dispute as shutting down the steel plants in Lackawanna."

Fontana said the Guild has made it clear that the Internet component has to be addressed and the seven companies have made it just as clear that they refuse.

"They're saying they don't care that we're going to lose our incomes," said Fontana. He predicts the strike will minimally last two months.

"I don't think there will be any serious conversations until January," said Fontana.

He expects the companies will move on to negotiate with the Directors Guild.

"The [Directors Guild] will fold immediately because they always do," said Fontana. "And then they will come back to us and make us feel like we should cave in. I don't think we will. Because I think our membership, top to bottom, is incredibly engaged in this and really aware what's at stake for our futures."

"One of the frustrating things about this is our message is not getting out because the companies we're striking against own the newscasts," said Fontana. "They have to acknowledge we're striking but they have no interest in giving a balanced depiction of what's going on."

The strike prohibits Fontana from working on scripts for "The Philanthropist" until the strike is over because that is contracted work. He and other Guild members can, however, write things that haven't been contracted. He said he is trying to finish a novel he's been working on for some time. If the strike continues, there will be some noticeable changes for viewers.

"The late-night shows are gone, the soap operas will go next," said Fontana. "By January, other than maybe '24' and reality shows, there won't be much original programming. It will be reruns. I'm sure the networks are plotting some kind of way to make us feel like we're insignificant. Which is, of course, what they do."

When it ends, Fontana can go back to work on "The Philanthropist," a drama with comedy elements about a 40-year-old billionaire who is a hedonist and a capitalist before he gets a social conscience after a tragedy in his life.

"He goes all over the world -- to Ecuador, Tibet and Uganda," said Fontana. "He decides that writing a check is the easy way to try and fix the world, so he puts himself in jeopardy."

"I've wanted to do a show about philanthropy for a long time," said Fontana, "and this one seemed to have the most action energy to it and be able to deal with important issue and still have some fun. The guy doesn't become St. Francis of Assisi. He doesn't give up his wealth. . . . He doesn't want to give up anything. He wants to try and do good. He's kind of Bill Gates meets Robin Hood. Think James Bond, Bill Gates and Robin Hood."

Sounds like the kind of guy who might be needed to settle the writers' strike.

e-mail: apergament@buffnews.com

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