A Strike May Turn Tv into a Vast Rerun Wasteland

UPDATED 04/18/1988 at 01:00 AM EDT Originally published 04/18/1988 at 01:00 AM EDT

For once, Cybill Shepherd and Bruce Willis were speechless. Their high-speed wisecracking as Moonlighting's Maddie and David simply screeched to a halt 10 minutes before the end of the March 22 episode. "Our lips are tied," Shepherd told the audience. Co-star Curtis Armstrong lip-synched to "Wooly Bully"—and with that the ABC series suddenly went into reruns.

Another hip reference to Moonlighting's deadline-busting creativity? No, this time the repartee shortage is no in-joke. A strike against TV and movie producers begun on March 7 by the 9,500-member Writers Guild of America (WGA)—among them the people who put words in the mouths of the nation's favorite TV characters—has created a serious case of writers' block all over the tube. The dispute centers on syndication residuals, the amount of money writers receive from shows sold for rebroadcast on non-network stations. The producers, citing declining profits and rising costs, want to replace the current fixed residual rate with a percentage of gross revenues. The Guild says this could result in an 85 percent loss of residuals for individual writers. "It's at a complete impasse—we're not talking," says George Kirgo, president of WGA/West. Kirgo predicts the opposition will cave in by late spring, when shows for the new fall season must start production. The producers, naturally, disagree. Foreseeing starving writers on the picket lines, the Alliance of Motion Picture and Television Producers says it won't return to the bargaining table until the Guild takes a "realistic" position.

Meanwhile, prime-time series have gone into reruns nearly two months before they usually start repeating themselves. Several mid-season replacements may never make it onto the schedule. And some hit shows' more ambitious episodes—saved for the crucial May ratings period—are in limbo, at least until next fall. Herewith, a viewer's guide to what you won't see on TV this spring:

Moonlighting in 3-D: Remember those funny 3-D glasses that people wore to the movies in the '50s? For a splashy Moonlighting season finale, Coca-Cola planned to distribute up to 40 million high-tech peepers, which would allow viewers to see part of the show in 3-D. Now the specs are speculative, at least for May.

Cheers' Sam Malone Tested for AIDS: In a proposed finale, Ted Dan-son's sexual overachiever was going to find out that one of his girlfriends had tested positive for AIDS—leading him to question his sexual habits while awaiting the results of his AIDS test. Instead this season will end with the previously filmed conclusion of the romance between Kirstie Alley and Tom Skerritt.

Wedding Bells for L.A. Law's Roxanne: As one way of getting out of her bankruptcy problems, the lovable secretary played by Susan Ruttan might have married a boring new suitor. But thanks to the strike, her heart still belongs to Corbin Bernsen.

David Letterman in London: Hoping to do for the Queen Mother what he did last season for lounge lizards in Las Vegas, David Letterman planned to broadcast live from London, May 3-6. The idea has been scrapped, and, like Johnny Carson and the cast of Saturday Night Live, Letterman has gone to reruns.

The Dictator's Arrival: A highly touted mid-season replacement starring Taxi's Christopher Lloyd as a deposed South Sea Islands despot running a New York Laundromat, The Dictator got caught in the strike—and never made its March 15 premiere on CBS.

And what about next season? If the writers' strike extends into late spring, when the networks announce their new lineup, it could push back the fall season from September to late October. The chief beneficiary of that scenario would be NBC, which has the Summer Olympics on tap for September and the World Series for October. NBC, which usually wins the regular season, would win the season that never was.

—By Jane Hall, with bureaus in Los Angeles and New York

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