The scribes for ''Millionaire'' and ''Whose Line'' cut preemptive deals

By Josh Wolk
Updated March 01, 2001 at 05:00 AM EST
Millionaire: Maria Melin

Who Wants to Be a Millionaire

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If the Writers Guild of America strikes May 2, and the quiz crafters on ”Who Wants to Be a Millionaire” continue to work, are they:
(a) scabs?
(b) dirty rotten scabs?
(c) stinking backstabbing scabs?
(d) Guild members in good standing?

No need to call Norma Rae for a lifeline: Your final answer should be (d), thanks to an extraordinary deal recently struck between Millionaire production company Valleycrest and the WGA East, in which Regis’ staff joins the union but is exempt from the impending labor dispute. The pact is good for ”Millionaire”’s 16 member writing crew — they get around $100 more a week, plus residuals — but the real beneficiary is ABC. Should members of the writers union unplug their PCs, ”Millionaire”’s scribes will continue feeding Reege questions, giving ABC a grand prize ratings advantage over CBS, NBC, and Fox in a prolonged strike.

Making ”Millionaire” a strike proof weapon began in January 2000, when the WGA and the show’s writers first spoke. Valleycrest resisted a contract, but wavered when the union threatened to investigate whether the company, a subsidiary of ABC owner Disney, was legally held to the same guild duty as its parent. The deadlock finally broke last fall, when Valleycrest proposed the present deal.

This clever showbiz quid pro quo means ABC is guaranteed several original episodes of its top 20 show a week, while its rivals will be stuck with reruns, old movies, or — gasp — a possible new season of ”Big Brother.” Given that a similar agreement has been reached with the writers who come up with the improv game concepts for Drew Carey’s ”Whose Line Is It Anyway?”, ABC will be a first run oasis.

Why would the guild want its writers to skip the strike? Because it believes ABC’s success will panic other nets and production companies and spur them to fold faster. ”We’re fairly certain it will be noticed,” says guild spokesperson Cheryl Rhoden. (Valleycrest, ABC, and competing networks declined to comment.) The guild cites historical precedent: In its eyes, the turning point in the 1988 strike came when 73 smaller production companies — including those behind ”The Cosby Show” and Johnny Carson’s ”The Tonight Show” — signed interim agreements to get back to work.

Other WGA members don’t think this is any way to work for the union label. ”It seems to go against the guild’s stance,” says DAG exec producer Jack Burditt. ”They’ve been going around saying, ‘Don’t give [the nets] any extra episodes.”’ As for solidarity: ”I don’t see how someone can be exempt and someone else has to strike,” says ”Everybody Loves Raymond”’s creator Phil Rosenthal. ”We’re either brothers or we’re not.”

The WGA maintains that it only agreed to the deals because otherwise ”Millionaire” and ”Whose Line” would continue as nonunion shops. ”Faced with either allowing these writers to work without a union contract or allowing them to work with the protection,” says Rhoden, ”you go for the organizing.”

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But just how organized a plan this really is might depend on another union’s brotherhood. If the Screen Actors Guild strikes June 30, Regis may stop asking the questions, leaving no network with the final answer.

Who Wants to Be a Millionaire

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