by Howie Cockrill, Esq.
If you watch television, live in Los Angeles, read Entertainment Weekly, are in the entertainment industry or know someone who is – chances are you’ve heard that there’s a writer’s strike going on.
But who is involved and what do they want? And, aside from some extra facial hair on our favorite actors and talk show hosts, what have the effects been?
This will be a multipart article giving a broad-brush, non-partisan view of the current writer’s strike - essentially “Writer’s Strike 101.”
Who & What:
The Writers Guild of America (WGA East and West) is the guild that represents upwards of 12,000 writers for film, television and radio in the U.S.
Many of these writers get hired for projects by the Alliance of Motion Picture and Television Producers (AMPTP), which represents about 400 U.S. film and television producers including CBS, MGM, NBC Universal, Fox / News Corp., Paramount, Sony Pictures, Disney and Warner Brothers.
Every so often the WGA negotiates for its members a new basic employment agreement (the Minimum Basic Agreement or MBA), which represents the floor level of what a writer can get in a deal with studios. The last one was inked in 2004 and expired on October 31, 2007.
Last winter, negotiations between the WGA and the AMPTP for a new Minimum Basic Agreement stalled, and 91% of WGA members voted to let their board call a strike.
The strike began with 12,000 writers boycotting the studios on November 5, 2007 and has continued for 12 weeks as of the date of this article.
The writers involved in the strike include not only those who are solely writers, but also writers who work as directors and producers (aka “hyphenates”) and some actors and talk show hosts as well.
The key issues that led to the strike are home video and new media residuals.
Other issues include:
- Minimum payments for "made for internet" programs ("webisodes")
- WGA jurisdiction over sub-genres of reality programming
- WGA jurisdiction over sub-genres of animation
- Requiring an AMPTP member company to notify the WGA of the impending sale of its operations & to requiring the purchaser's signature on the WGA Basic Agreement as a condition of sale.
- Giving the WGA broader reporting and auditing rights of the money it receives from the AMPTP
- Giving writers notice of potential product placement in the script & giving them a voice in product placement decisions
- Overall increase in all minimum rates
- Let the WGA increase the caps on pension & health care contributions
- Expand the Basic Agreement to cover low budget, made-for-television programming
- Eliminate the discount for quiz and audience-participation programming
- Clarify that ringtones are covered in the merchandising provision of the Basic Agreement
So what shows are affected?
With the exception of animation and reality television programming, most television shows and many movies in production have felt the squeeze.
Established shows like “Heroes,” “Smallville,” “Grey’s Anatomy,” and “CSI” had to end their seasons early with rushed finales, and the airing of the new season of cult favorite “Battlestar Galactica” could be delayed indefinitely.
Newcomer shows like “Pushing Daisies,” “The Big Bang Theory,” and “Private Practice” that had received full season orders will have trouble completing the job.
As the strike continues, the attrition will not be limited to established and newcomer shows. Pilot shows are typically written and sold during the spring and aired as series in the fall.
Increasingly, the traditional pilot season is being threatened – which ironically could mean that many new shows from last fall, which may have been axed in a short strike followed by a prolific pilot season, could get a reprieve from the hangman if there are no pilots ready for airing.
Non-guild replacement writers, lovingly referred to as “scabs,” have taken over the reigns on some television shows. Soap.com reports that as of January 11, 2008, non-guild writers began work on new episodes of “One Life To Live.”
Aside from the AMPTP’s use of non-guild writers, there has been little other movement in the dispute on either side.
However, the WGA did recently reach a separate, tangential agreement with CBS News covering about 500 newswriters, editors, desk assistants, production assistants, graphic artists, promo writers and researchers in New York, D.C., Chicago and L.A.
The new contract would give these employees a 3.5% raise through April 1, 2010.
Additionally, the AMPTP has reached a tentative, 3 year agreement with the Directors Guild of America (DGA), which represents about 13,500 directors and production workers.
This agreement, which will take effect on June 30, 2008, will certainly put pressure on the WGA to also reach an agreement with the AMPTP.
In later installments of this article, I will cover:
- The history of the AMPTP and the WGA
- The home video and new media residuals issue
- Side effects of the writers' strike
(thanks to Andrziej for the picture)