The Coming Storm

As hundreds of advertisers streamed into ABC's season preview last week, the background music included the theme from "Goldfinger." The promised lineup included new series from "Seinfeld's" Jason Alexander and producer Steven Bochco. But in fact, the classic 1964 James Bond movie may end up being about the best thing ABC has to offer next fall. If you think "The Sopranos" makes the rest of TV look like the garbage business, just wait a couple of months, when there may not be any writers or actors around.

Contract talks between screenwriters and producers are deadlocked. With the sides $100 million apart, studio chiefs no longer wonder if there may be a strike this summer, but how long it will last. The first casualty of a May walkout would be talk shows staffed by the Writers Guild of America. David Letterman will have to write his own jokes. If the Screen Actors Guild joins the WGA on the picket lines, actors may scrub publicity appearances. Stupid pet tricks, anyone?

Stupidity won't be limited to Letterman's talking birds, though. Without writers or actors, the networks will be forced to rely on a lot more news programs, sports and unscripted TV shows. What treats are in store? "The Cube," where 10 strangers locked in a room must figure out what trait they share besides shamelessness. And "The Runner," a $1 million contest challenging viewers to capture someone traveling across the country. Some reality shows aim higher than others. The Emmy-winning makers of "Law & Order" will follow real-life prosecutors in NBC's "Trial & Error."

It's not just TV viewers who will suffer. The networks, already faced with declining audiences, won't win new followers with shows twice as silly as "The Mole." And the 10 percent of Los Angelenos--from caterers to hair stylists--whose livelihoods depend on show business will see their earnings nose-dive. Yet for all the creative Hollywood brainpower in the negotiations, no compromise deal has been made. "We are scared," says DreamWorks cofounder Jeffrey Katzenberg. The writers are asking for a deal that the producers say could cost the entire industry $1.6 billion over the next three years, a figure the WGA considers "dramatically overinflated."

The WGA, Hollywood's most militant union, believes its members deserve millions more in secondary payments, or residuals, from subsequent showings of their TVshows and movies. It also wants to curtail directors' self-important "film by" movie credits. Sitting across the bargaining table with the likes of AOL Time Warner and DreamWorks is the Walt Disney Co., which the screenwriters say won't approve any deal that doesn't give networks the right to rerun new TV programs with discounted re-siduals. Disney president Robert Iger says the networks need help establishing audiences for in-creasingly costly shows that rarely make it into lucrative syndication. "This is a tool to maintain viability," Iger says of the discounted reruns. Since the producers bargain like the U.N. Security Council, where a single no vote trumps all the yeses, any one studio can kill a deal if it wants. Maybe Tony Soprano should come in and straighten out this mess.