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Hollywood writer discusses strikes

Kara Coyle | Wednesday, February 20, 2008

Jeffrey Stepakoff spoke about the rise, fall and rebirth of scripted entertainment in a speech in Browning Cinema Tuesday night.

Stepakoff, who for 18 years wrote for television programs including “The Wonder Years” and “Dawson’s Creek,” as well as developed two animated films for Disney, said his career did not begin with success.

After he moved to Los Angeles in the late 1980s, Stepakoff’s debut as a Hollywood writer coincided with the 1988 Writer’s Guild strike.

This strike, Stepakoff said, resulted in $500 million worth of damage to the Los Angeles economy and a nine percent decrease in viewers.

“[The strike] was the beginning of audience erosion,” he said.

Despite the efforts of the strikers, Stepakoff said people thought the strike itself was unsuccessful.

“The gains that were made for the writers were not really that far from what was on the table before the strike,” he said.

Stepakoff took a different stance on the success of the most recent writer’s strike, which last several months and ended last week.

“I propose that this event was different not just because of the financial gains but because the writers stuck together,” said Stepakoff, contrasting it to the 1988 strike that ended due to internal struggles.

Stepakoff said he isn’t sure whether the most recent strike was worth the loss of revenue for Hollywood.

“I think we could not have gotten the renewed strength without having this labor unrest,” he said.

One of the main issues of this writer’s strike was how to evaluate a writer’s work, a question that Stepakoff says he has asked himself numerous times.

“The value of writers, the lifeblood of writers, was really what this conflict was about,” Stepakoff said. “What is the price of a writer’s blood? How do you evaluate what we do? Are we worth the billions of dollars for the shows we make?”

The answers to these questions differ greatly from studio executives to writers, Stepakoff said, “[but] the lifeblood of these companies is the work of writers.”

Stepakoff also discussed the rise of reality television and its implications on Hollywood writers.

“Reality television is not a fad. It is not something that popped up arbitrarily,” he said.

He said reality television is becoming a popular genre not because people enjoy it, but because the networks in the studios are able to use writers that are not in the guild.

Reality television is used as an intimidation device against writers, Stepakoff said.

“A lot of this stuff is being programmed as a threat to writers,” he said. “It’s cheap to make and it keeps writers in check.”