In the Trenches: Random rants, musings and media tales about the US writers’ strike

Today, as both good and bad news about strike negotiations drifts out of L.A., Initiative Media's Joe Haig has his say. He's optimistic that even if traditional upfronts become extinct, 'Making 'the deal' will never really go away as long as people have television sets.'

While others dwell on potentially negative results of the writers’ strike – a dearth of pilots, possible disappearance of the upfronts – Joe Haig, group broadcast manager at Toronto’s Initiative Media, is spying a rosier scenario. Namely, that the absence of upfront hype about purportedly surefire winners may result in anxious networks offering advertisers better deals.

Also potentially encouraging are yesterday’s developments in L.A. After sitting down with producers and studio reps for informal talks – the first such face-to-faces since Dec. 7 – the Writers Guild proffered two olive branches. One was dropping its previous demands regarding reality and animation. The other was a promise not to picket the Grammy Awards on Feb. 10. As well, the WGA hired Alan Wertheimer – the entertainment lawyer who negotiated the deal that put David Letterman back on the air – to help hammer out terms that could end the strike.

But what’s likely to happen with the Academy Awards broadcast remains murky. The WGA is still insisting that loyal members of other unions, notably the Screen Actors Guild, not cross picket lines on Feb. 24. Yet longtime Oscars producer Gil Cates says his team is going full speed ahead on everything from set design to hiring musicians and backstage personnel.

Amid the swirl of question marks, here are Haig’s comments on how the strike is affecting his agency now and what may happen in the future.

How is the strike affecting your activities?

‘Day-to-day operations in terms of broadcast execution have not been greatly affected. The volume of paperwork remains consistent, and we continue to monitor all changes, as we would during any part of a client’s campaign.’

Are you revising plans now?

‘There have been some adjustments to plans for the spring period for certain clients, although the greater impact has yet to be seen. For the most part, the changes have to do with the focus of the execution. While top programming is often a high priority, it’s important to try and utilize a wider variety of genres in order to capitalize on where viewers will turn.’

How far ahead are you Plan B-ing for?

‘Because there’s no guaranteed timeline for the strike issues to be resolved, it’s somewhat day-to-day in terms of making changes. If you put a lot of weight on similar conflicts in the past, you may look at changes for the long term. However, it’s important not to stray too far off a strategy because you fear the unknown.’

What will happen if there are very few pilots coming out of Hollywood?

‘One of the bigger discussion points is the impact this could have on the upfront season. Clearly, without writers to help create pilots, there would be a different look to the fall season – although a lack of upfront hype may have a reverse effect on advertiser costs. With no clear winners during the upfront season (due to lack of high-impact programming), there could be increased urgency on the networks’ part to do deals that are significantly more efficient and heavily favour clients. So, although the programming will be much different, there may be better contracts for advertisers overall.’

Should Canadian networks look elsewhere in the world for new programming?

‘I’m not sure this is a solution to fill holes within station schedules. If the NHL lockout (when many fringe and international programs did not provide solid ratings) was any indication, the Canadian viewer may not be receptive. There have been a few somewhat successful international programs (primarily of British origin), but they may not be enough to retain viewers.’

What do you see as the long-term impact of the strike?

‘Making ‘The Deal’ will never really go away as long as people have television sets. What changes is how the deal is structured and what components make up the deal. The longer the strike continues, the greater the chance of moving back toward the ‘convergence’ mindset, where multimedia elements become deal breakers. But those who can leverage mediums other than television, yet still provide TV as a base component, should continue to be successful.’