Studios Cancel TV Writer Contracts

Conceding that the current television season cannot be salvaged, four major studios canceled dozens of writer contracts Monday.

The move signals that development of next season's crop of new shows also could be in jeopardy because of the 2-month-old writers strike. Typically, January marks the start of pilot season when networks order new comedies and dramas. But with writers not working, networks do not have a pool of scripts from which to choose.

20th Century Fox Television, CBS Paramount Network Television, NBC Universal and Warner Bros. Television each confirmed that they terminated development and production agreements. Such arrangements typically cost the studios $500,000 to $2 million a year per writer in order to pay them and their staffs and overhead while they develop ideas for new TV shows.

"I didn't see it coming," said Barbara Hall, a writer and producer whose credits include former CBS series "Joan of Arcadia" and "Judging Amy." ABC executives gave her the news Friday. "I am not entirely sure what their strategy is, all I know was that I was a casualty of it," she said.

It's unclear how many people will be affected by the so-called force majeure actions, which allow a studio unilaterally to cancel a writer's contract in the event of a crisis such as a strike. A production deal can involve a solo writer or a team of several people.

"The duration of the WGA strike has significantly affected our ongoing business. Regretfully, due to these changed business circumstances, we've had to end some writer/producer deals," NBC Universal said in its statement.

Overall, more than 65 deals with writers have been eliminated since Friday. ABC Studios late last week cut about 25 deals. On Monday, CBS Paramount cut 15, Fox jettisoned about 14, NBC Universal rid nearly 10, and Warner Bros. trimmed three, said people familiar with the situation.

One top studio executive said if the strike continues into February there would probably be another round of force majeure eliminations. "There are likely to be deeper cuts," said the executive, who asked not to be identified given the sensitivity of the issue.

For the studios, the terminations were in some part strategic. Payments had not been made on the contracts since November, when the Writers Guild of America went on strike. The canceled contracts mostly affected writers who may have achieved some success but were not behind the bigger hits.

By eliminating the deals now, the studios will no longer be obligated to pay the writers even if the strike ends in the next month or two. The action saves the media companies tens of millions of dollars in payments, and is the first real sign of belt-tightening caused by the strike.

meg.james@latimes.com