Writers Guild holds advantage, as strike would strand viewers

As Writers Guild of America (WGA) members near a possible November 1 strike, Hollywood's network and studio execs are bracing for interruptions to their programming schedules.

As Writers Guild of America (WGA) members near a possible November 1 strike, Hollywood's network and studio execs are bracing for interruptions to their programming schedules.

Leaders of the 12,000-member WGA - the union representing TV and film writers - have been meeting since July with the Alliance of Motion Picture and Television Producers (AMPTP) to negotiate a new three-year contract. But as the current pact's October 31 deadline nears, there's been little common ground.

At the core of the contention are differing opinions on issues, including increased residual payments for reruns and DVDs, new-media revenue splitting, and product-placement storylines. In an unexpected turn, however, on October 16, the AMPTP withdrew the item WGA reps most objected to: a proposal under which writers would be paid residuals only after producers recovered their costs. Still, labor tensions run high.

Why does it matter?

Though the AMPTP called the withdrawal an effort to remove "what has become an emotional impediment and excuse by the WGA not to bargain," it was a "misguided proposal" from the start, says entertainment attorney Jonathan Handel, counsel with LA-based TroyGould. The AMPTP's residual policy has set writers' expectations for 40-plus years, he adds. To take it off the table shows "they weren't negotiating seriously."

Now, he says, "the studios are practically begging the WGA to negotiate... From a PR standpoint, advantage guild."

A November 1 walkout "would be hugely disruptive," notes The Hollywood Reporter, leaving viewers stranded midseason and writers paid for only a fraction of their work. It may also "drive viewers to the Internet," notes Handel, for user-generated content. But it's not too late for a strike to be averted.

"I don't know what's going to happen next," he says. "But I think the guild has successfully changed people's impressions."

Five facts:

1 The last industrywide WGA strike occurred in 1988 (pictured), a hostile affair that halted work for five months and delayed the start of the fall TV season.

2 According to a 2006 study, the TV and film production industry is responsible for 1.3 million US jobs, generates $30.24 billion in annual wages, and contributes more than $30 billion annually to the LA-area economy.

3 Studios have been stockpiling scripts and shooting multiple episodes. In case of a strike, by mid-January, networks will resort to reality, repeats, sports, and newsmagazines.

4 Though animated features aren't under WGA jurisdiction, guild strike rules state that writers can't work on prime-time network animated series unless cleared by the WGA.

5 WGA negotiations are just the start for the AMPTP. Contracts for both the Screen Actors Guild and the Directors Guild of America expire in June.


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