Picket lines were set up on both US coasts today as the first strike by Hollywood writers in nearly 20 years got under way.
The move looks likely to cripple the television industry and almost 12,000 members of the Writers Guild of America, who work primarily for television shows and film studios, have walked out.
The last walk-out in 1988 lasted 22 weeks and cost the industry an estimated $500m.
Late-night US talk-shows were the first to be hit, with NBC’s The Tonight Show with Jay Leno, Ellen, The Daily Show with Jon Stewart and The Colbert Report all resorting to re-runs to fill the schedule.
The strike will not immediately impact on film production or prime-time TV programmes as most studios have stockpiled dozens of movie scripts, and TV shows have enough scripts or completed shows in hand to last until early next year.
One key factor that could determine the damage caused by the strike is whether members of a powerful Hollywood Teamsters local union honour the picket lines over the next few days.
Local 399, which represents truck drivers, casting directors and location managers, had told its members that as a union, it has a legal obligation to honour its contracts with producers.
But the clause does not apply to individuals who are protected by US federal law from employer retribution if they decide to honour the strike.
Talks began in July and continued after the writers’ contract expired on Wednesday and last-minute discussions on Sunday failed to produce an agreement on payment to writers from shows offered on the internet.
Strikers set up picket lines outside NBC headquarters at the Rockefeller Centre in New York.
About 40 people, chanting ’No contract, no shows’, protested outside the studios where a giant, inflated rat was displayed.
Jose Arroyo, a writer for Late Night with Conan O’Brien said the writers wanted a percentage of the income from new media.
Diana Son, a writer for Law & Order: Criminal Intent, said: “It’s an extremely volatile industry. There’s no job security. Residuals are an important part of our income. There’s no cushion.”
At CBS in Studio City, Los Angeles, about 40 people applauded when mid-morning picketing began.
Robert Port, a writer for Numb3rs, said he was as ready as possible for what could be a long walkout.
“We live in Los Angeles, your bank account can never really be ready for this,” he said.
At Paramount Pictures on Melrose Avenue about 50 strikers dressed in jeans, athletic shoes and red strike T-shirts carried signs reading, “Writers Guild of America on Strike”.
Drivers honked their horns as they passed the studio’s landmark gate.
The Alliance of Motion Picture and Television Producers said writers refused a request to “stop the clock” on the planned strike while talks continued.
“It is unfortunate that they choose to take this irresponsible action,” the alliance said in a statement.
Writers said they withdrew a proposal to increase their share of revenue from the sale of DVDs that had been a stumbling block for producers.
They also said proposals by producers in the area of internet re-use of TV episodes and films were unacceptable.
“The AMPTP made no response to any of the other proposals that the WGA has made since July,” the writers said in a statement.
The strike has wide-ranging implications for Hollywood as whatever deal is reached by writers is likely to be used as a template for talks with actors and directors, whose contracts expire next June.
Screen Actors Guild president Alan Rosenberg said: “We’ll get what they get.”