Thursday, November 15, 2007

Ellen under fire

Why Degeneres has drawn the ire of the WGA.

Ellen DeGeneres
By Matea Gold
Los Angeles Times Staff Writer

November 15, 2007

NEW YORK -- Comedian Ellen Degeneres scrapped plans to tape her syndicated talk show here next week after the Writers Guild of America, East vowed to picket the production to protest her decision to return to work while her writers are on strike.

Laura Mandel, a spokeswoman for Telepictures Productions, which produces "The Ellen Degeneres Show," declined to say whether the change of plans was related to the guild's expected demonstrations.

"We're taping shows during a fluid situation and we made the best decision for our show," she said.

If Degeneres had come to New York, she would have likely encountered forceful criticisms from the New York-based guild, which lambasted her decision last week to cross the picket line after sitting out one day in solidarity with her writers.

In a sharply worded statement released Friday afternoon, the WGA East denounced Degeneres' return to work and suggested that she could be violating strike rules if she writes material during the labor stoppage -- a charge rejected by her representatives, who noted that hosts are allowed to perform their own material.

The union also took a swipe at her emotional breakdown on the air last month after an animal rescue organization reclaimed Iggy, a dog she adopted and later gave away.

"We find it sad that Ellen spent an entire week crying and fighting for a dog that she gave away, yet she couldn't even stand by writers for more than one day -- writers who have helped make her extremely successful," said the guild, adding that she "was not welcome in New York."

That triggered an angry response from the American Federation of Television and Radio Artists, which accused its fellow union of launching an "ad hominem attack" on one of its members.

Michael Winship, president of WGA East, remained resolute Wednesday about the guild's censure of Degeneres, saying that he hopes she decides not to cross the picket line again.

"I think she should look to her conscience," he said.

The condemnation of the affable comic -- just weeks after she made headlines for sobbing over Iggy's fate -- has emerged as an odd flash point in the battle between the writers and studios.

Degeneres has drawn the ire of the guild because unlike her fellow daytime talk show hosts, she is a member of the WGA, as well as AFTRA. The writers' union has moved aggressively to keep its members -- especially the high-profile ones -- from breaking ranks during the strike, as some did in the 1988 walk-out.

WGA leaders say that Degeneres should honor the strike line like fellow comedians such as Jay Leno, who brought doughnuts to the picketing writers last week.

Her representatives rejected that comparison, noting that the late-night shows do not face the same risk as syndicated programs if they go dark. If Degeneres did not continue generating new episodes, the stations that carry her show could have bumped it to a different time slot or charged that the program was breaking its contract.

So after sitting one day out in solidarity with her writers, the comedian -- whose show is carried by 220 stations around the country -- was told by Telepictures she had to return to work or risk breaching her own contract.

"She is with her writers emotionally and ethically," said spokeswoman Kelly Bush.

Degeneres, who began taping shows again Nov. 6, voiced her support for her writers on the air and declined to perform a monologue in their honor for two days.

"Personally, it's heartbreaking. I love my writers; we're a family," she told reporters last week. "It's really hard to have to deal with where they are and where I am because I'm kinda caught in the middle.

"I'm a host and have 135 staff members depending on me for a paycheck each week," she added.

Since then, Degeneres has delivered monologues she has written herself, but "has not done anything in violation of the WGA contract nor their strike rules," Mandel said.

Aside from Degeneres' program, daytime talk and syndicated shows have been largely unaffected by the strike because many of the best-known programs -- including "The Oprah Winfrey Show," "Live With Regis and Kelly," "Rachael Ray" and "The Martha Stewart Show" -- do not employ guild writers. (Bush said that when her show was first launching, Degeneres supported her writers' request to be employed under a guild contract.)

"Dr. Phil" is perhaps the only other syndicated talk shows with guild writers, but has continued production uninterrupted, according to a spokesman. Game shows like "Jeopardy" and "Who Wants to Be a Millionaire" are also union shows, but typically tape episodes far in advance.

"The View," a daytime talk show that airs on ABC, also has guild writers, but has continued production.

"The writer's strike doesn't affect us since we are primarily an ad lib show," co-host Barbara Walters told "Extra" last week. "Nobody writes what we say. Maybe they should. So we are fine."