Since I watch a lot of serialized storytelling through scripted television shows, I often find myself reading business items about the industry, following ratings, looking to see which shows are picked up and which are not. And, for fun, following blogs of insiders like Lee Goldberg and Ken Levine. The world of TV is about to go a bit crazy, or at least it could, as it is time for a new contract to be negotiated between the Writing Guild of America (WGA, i.e. television writers) and the Alliance of Motion Picture and Television Producers (AMPTP, i.e. the producers). As Ken (can I call him Ken? I don’t know him personally, but he seems like a Ken rather than a Levine) makes very clear in his latest post (By Ken Levine: Strike update), when they say “producers”, they are not talking about creative producers like Shonda Rhimes, it means the corporate studio suits.
You might remember back when there was a writers’ strike before…new shows didn’t get written, seasons got curtailed, blah blah blah. It wasn’t good for just about anybody involved. People reportedly lost houses, cars, etc. It is a sad reality that most of the people who really need to benefit from an increase in pay because of a strike are also the least able to sustain themselves during a strike. That’s not limited to Hollywood, that’s anywhere. And, let’s be frank…there’s a far distance between staff writers in California and coal miners in Kentucky breathing coal dust for 20 years, no insurance, danger of imminent death from poorly supported tunnels crashing in on them every day. While the writers have some legitimate issues, most of the world would look at them and think, “Really? You’re whining about that? Come do MY job for a day.” And when those same writers end up shutting down production of that person’s favorite show, well, haters gonna hate. Maybe hate the studios. Maybe hate their local cable company, just because they can. And maybe hate the writers too. Never the actors though, they’re golden.
One of the things I love about Ken’s recent post is it is a semi-unvarnished look at the current state of play for the strike negotiations. I think Ken would like to see himself as a completely unbiased / unvarnished truth teller, but when anyone involved in a strike situation says, “It’s not us causing the strike, we’ll accept any reasonable offer, it’s the other guys who are being greedy”, my BS detector goes off. Loudly. Almost as much as when someone says, “It’s not about the money.”
I have no skin in this game personally. I’m not a TV writer, not really anything other than a blog writer, but what I am good at is analysing things. Sometimes industries, seeing and understanding general trends, understanding corporate directions, understanding management issues, and sometimes, seeing some issues in HR and labour relations from a slightly more neutral lens.
I read through Ken’s list of issues from the WGA perspective, and while I have no reason to think he got them wrong, if these indeed are what the WGA is asking for and they’re really willing to strike for them, it is going to be a long cold winter with no new shows.
Upfront, there is the standard fare which is increased “minimum compensation” across the board. In other words, a raise. Ultimately, this is often the only one relevant to negotiations, leaving the rest to be smoke and mirrors that can be and is often traded off against this one.
Increase residuals … Writers get paid when shows are made. Then, as shows are aired over the years (i.e. reruns), they get the equivalent of royalty cheques (kind of like musicians or authors of books). Writers have seen those residuals dwindling, and they want more from the pie. Their argument is in part that networks are airing fewer reruns, and cable stations are running episodes across multiple platforms, but what this really means is that there is less money coming in. For everyone, not just writers. Producers, stars, writers. Chances are that the producers would be willing to trade this off with something else they like less, but it is also a dangerous request. The producers could give the writers more knowing that residuals are dropping and that the pie is shrinking anyway. Producers will love to give them 2% more of something that is shrinking in relevance to their income streams.
Increased contributions / expansion of the Health Fund … According to Ken, they’ll go to the mattresses for this one, and it’s a completely understandable demand. But there’s a problem…it is REALLY expensive to do it. If the producers increase even a small amount, it multiplies out and looks like a large tax. So, almost guaranteed, they can’t both do it AND an increase to minimum compensation. Of course, if it is the mattress issue for the writers, something will have to be done on it to save face, but even a small gesture is a story that writes itself (no pun intended…okay, well, a little intended). Everybody looks good — “We producers care about our writers” and “we the WGA won benefits for our writers”.
Per episode protection … This one is one of my favorite ones of the WGA, particularly if they feel “the strike is up to the producers”. Cuz this one is a complete non-starter for the producers. The argument is that the once mighty 22-ep world is gone, they only do short seasons at the start (10 or 13 episodes), and take a lot of time to make decisions about the future. Why? Because that world has disappeared for them too. They can’t commit to 22 episode seasons as the financial risk of a failure is too high. Now, what does this mean for writers from the producers point of view? Less pressure to produce immediately (slower pace for the 10 or 13 episodes), and less work generally (10 or 13 instead of 22). In other words, the producers give the writers less work, and more time, and the writers think they should be paid more? Riiiiiighhht. Cuz that’s an argument that would work with any boss. If they had more work and less time, would they let them pay them less? Probably not. A total non-starter for the producers. It’s also a red-herring for the real issue next.
Exclusivity … What this one means is essentially if you’re a writer on one show, you can’t take on a second job as a writer on another show. You are exclusive to them. Which, when combined with the per episode one above would mean you used to be able to work full-time for the year if you made a show, now you might only be working the annual equivalent of part-time. So, absolutely, it’s a serious issue. Non-compete clauses are ridiculously bad. It’s why actors are breaking them for short series, and you see stars showing up on other shows on different networks. Particularly shows like Suits, or Orphan Black, or Continuum, or a host of other 10 EP series. This is a real and significant issue, the same as it is in writing contracts, acting contracts, legal contracts (although there is some actual reasons for non-competes there), investment (also some validity), etc. Yet the WGA has to know that it is a double-edged sword. For every inch the producers give in removing “locked in” exclusivity, it also increases the likelihood of more short-term contracts, rather than staff jobs. And a short-term contract could come with a lot less overhead for the studio.
Newbie writing teams — This one flat out sucks for writers. Basically the producers say, “Hey, we can only afford one salary”. And yet hire two people to share the work and take half each. They argue, unsuccessfully, that this is for newbies to get their foot in the door, unproven, get some experience. Total exploitation. And while the WGA wants the two writers to both get full pay, it ain’t going to happen. All it means is the producer will say, “Bob, Joe, we can only hire one of you. Here’s a set of dueling pistols. Work it out, and we’ll see who shows up for work on Monday.” It’s a buyer’s market, and there is no reason for the producers to do anything on this. Know what else? There will also be ZERO sympathy from the producers as they have had lots of similar issues with producer credits, executive producers, actors who have to have a producer credit, fingers in pies that shouldn’t even see the pie. Simplest solution? Just hire one person, skip the “team”. So half the people hired. Oh yeah, and half the dues going to the WGA. Just about every union out there likes dues more than it likes being right, I doubt they’ll fight too hard.
Paid family leave — Ken points out that this should be a no-brainer, just like every other big employer out there. Except those same employers had to be dragged kicking and screaming to that point, often at the point of legislation, not willingly. It’s expensive. It’s a tax. The employer in those other cases gets the employee back when it’s over, all very organized and non-chaotic; the producers are more likely to say, “If you leave, don’t come back. We’re moving on!”. It’s a brutal business, and the producers won’t likely even think about it too hard. I agree it’s the right thing to do, which is pretty much a guarantee they won’t do it unless someone else forces them to do it in trade for something else.
Newbie training … Last on Ken’s short list is one where training is needed, supposedly because budgets are tight. Yet every business around the globe with the exception of a very small handful of family concerns all do almost the same thing when budgets are tight — they slash. They don’t spend on training to better do the job they already hired you to do, because you’re already being paid as if you can do it. Can they agree to it as a breadcrumb? Sure. Yawn.
And yet, nowhere in Ken’s list, is there ANYTHING about what the producers are going to say about their world:
a. Yes, there are multiple platforms now, all competing;
b. New scripted shows are regularly getting their butts handed to them by reality and sports;
c. Cord-cutters are killing everyone and no one knows what to do about it without major disruption that no one has the cojones to actually consider;
d. More shows, more options, more competition, including against every show that has ever been made with binge watching now available everywhere;
e. Shorter runs, smaller budgets, tighter budgets;
f. More fingers in every pie; and,
g. A hit used to be something that could pull in significant share, whereas now, average ratings for scripted shows are way down from previous years, which decreases ad revenue which is already decreasing with more ways for people to reach the public including bypassing TV ads entirely…and did we mention cord-cutters riding for free?
Which means RISK is way up across the board. So, in order to compensate, investors need more return on their investment, or the money goes elsewhere. Like all industries, and sectors, it dries up. Unless they can find ways to mitigate risk. Like 10 episode commitments. Exclusivity contracts. Slower commitment timelines. Stable rates for pay. They used to be able to control the market by limiting it to the major networks…Hulu, Amazon, Netflix killed that model.
That’s what the WGA is going to hear, and the WGA’s list seems to say, “Too bad for you, we want more money too, cuz your profits are up”. That’s a really popular refrain from unions. “Well, you made x billions last year, so you can afford to pay us more.” That’s not how it works. The stark reality is that writers are a factor of production, a key factor obviously, but still only a factor. How many times have you seen a well-written show, loved by critics, with no bankable leads, and the show TANKS? Fast. So, if you are the producer trying to maximize your profits for next year, and you have an extra dollar to spend, are you going to spend it on a better writer or are you going to spend it on more bankable stars? You spend it on the factors that turn your raw ingredients into shiny baubles for people to buy, not the factors that produce the raw materials behind the scenes. In short, there are many more writers waiting in the wings for similar opportunities to toil in the background. Josh Whedon’s exploitation of cheap writers on Buffy is legendary, and all those producers believe the same. Writers are not a dime a dozen, but you can probably find two who are willing to work for a shared dime.
The only weapon in this strike that the WGA has is to cut off the supply. The last strike, that was a semi-effective strategy, but not completely. One of my favorite quirks of that weird season was seeing an episode of “Jake and the Fatman” (a show I *never* watched but did that night) that was weirdly familiar. Jake was doing an investigation with flashback to playing football in high school, and involved some of his old high school buddies. So familiar, in fact, that I thought maybe I had seen it before. But I was sure I hadn’t, and Jake (Joe Penny) didn’t seem right, the episode seemed slightly off. And then suddenly a light bulb went on.
I *had* seen the episode before, and Joe Penny had been in it, but not as Jake. It was as Nick Ryder on Riptide. And his partner, Cody Allen, was the investigator character looking back to his high school days. The writing strike was on, and they reused a script from Riptide as filler for Jake and the Fatman. I have no idea how they did it…the original was written by Stephen J Cannell and Frank Lupo, neither of whom have writing credits for any of the J&TFM episodes. But I digress.
What I’m wondering is if 2017 is really a good time to play chicken with a studio about supply of scripts? Publishing houses did that with authors, and self-publishing of e-books by former mid-listers took off with Amazon cashing in. The publishing industry? Not so much. The WGA in this scenario could be the Barnes and Nobel of tomorrow. Do all those unemployed TV writers need that infrastructure to survive? Could any of those thousands of ex-writers who are not on shows now come up with a way to use e-scripts as a way to disrupt the industry? If I was a studio head, I’d sure be thinking about it.
Ignoring that digression though, based on other sectors, I think the negotiations between the WGA and the AMPTP will come down to two options:
a. BUNDLE 1: Minimum compensation increase and/or residuals, and small health fund increase; or,
b. BUNDLE 2: Health fund increase, minimum compensation increases incrementally (standard), nothing on residuals.
Nothing on per episode; writing teams; paid family leave; or training.
The one I can’t square the circle on is exclusivity. Are WGA members willing to die on their sword for this one? They probably can’t get it with Bundle 1, and only small chance on Bundle 2 (because in some ways, it doesn’t DIRECTLY cost AMPTP to agree to it, they might say yes if pushed hard enough).
If we take out the health fund, what issue would the WGA be willing to strike on alone?
Either way, if the WGA tries to add anything else into bundle 1 or 2 above, it will be a cold day in Hollywood before the producers settle.