Friday, November 09, 2007

Strike!

The Writers Guild of America is on strike; their contract expired October 31, 2007.

Why are they striking? It's a brave new world; how we get our television has changed since the days of rabbit ears and a handful of stations. And, in a nutshell, the TV writers are saying, they want their fair share of the profits from their work product.

And all I have to say is ... four cents for each DVD sold? I'm shocked.

Jeff Gottesfeld kindly agreed to answer some questions for Pop (and agreed for this to be cross posted at Tea Cozy.) Those of you who read YA literature or watch daytime TV may be nodding your heads, recognizing his name. With his wife Cherie Bennett, is the associate head writer of The Young and the Restless on CBS. They are members of the Writers Guild of America (East) and are currently on strike. Working in TV, film (Broken Bridges), young adult fiction (Anne Frank and Me, Life in the Fat Lane, and A Heart Divided), adult fiction (Turn Me On, wring as Cherie Jeffrey ), as well as various other rumored pseudonymous projects, and stage (Reviving Ophelia, Searching for David's Heart), they live in Los Angeles with their son.

Liz B: I have to confess, one of my first reactions to the strike was selfish, oh, no, but my shows! Followed by, ah well, time to catch upon DVD watching. But then I wondered, hey, do the people who contributed to making the DVD get a fair share? (Seriously, even before the strike, I've wondered if the only people making money are the production company.)

I am also one of those people who think being a TV writer must be made of awesome. So, as I write these question, I'm both curious, and also a bit of a fangirl.

For the layperson, can you explain what exactly why the WGA (Writers Guild of America) decided to strike?

Jeff: Let me start with a caveat: I am not a member of my union's negotiating committee, and my understanding of these issues are a layman's understanding. The WGA offices in Los Angeles or New York, and particularly their websites http://www.wgaw.org/ and http://www.wgaeast.org/, have more and better details than I could possibly provide here.

The WGA decided to strike because the only thing that would be worse than striking would be not to strike. We came to this decision with the greatest of reluctance, when it became apparent to our negotiating team that the AMPTP (Association of Motion Picture and Television Producers), the major-producers consortium with whom we negotiate our writers' deal every three years, was not willing to tackle in good faith our major issue: what to do about payments to writers for materials streamed or downloaded on the Internet. We took important contract proposal after contract proposal off the table in an effort to create negotiating movement, as late as six hours before the strike deadline. We got nowhere.

Liz B: Which networks are affected? Not to be silly, but being as I have BBC America (yay Torchwood!) and watch DeGrassi (Canadian) on Nick at Night, I just wondered if all TV shows are covered or not.) What writing is affected?

Jeff: Our strike runs against WGA signatory companies, of which there are a few hundred. Not only does it cover the major TV networks and movie studios, but also a plethora of production companies. We had to put our pencils, pens, and computer keyboards down.

Scripts in development that had been acquired or optioned have to be shelved until the end of the strike. For us, Cherie and I wrote The Young and the Restless script #8796, which airs on the day before Christmas, and submitted it just before the strike deadline. A few more hours would have sunk that script. Not only that, writers can't negotiate with a struck company. We've had to tell our agents to stop. Here are the full strike rules: http://www.wga.org/subpage_member.aspx?id=2493 They are extensive.

Here's what is largely affected on the TV side: scripted material that has yet to be written. Sitcoms, late-night TV, Saturday Night Live, Heroes, daytime dramas like our own The Young and the Restless, etc. Animation depends on whether the contact is with a Guild signatory. The WGA press office can give you more particulars on all these details. Canadian writers have been told to put down their pens on all the USA work. British shows are not affected. Nor are shows that have already been filmed, nor shows for which scripts were finished before the strike deadline. DeGrassi is safe; at least those episodes have already been filmed.

Liz B: What is the current contract (if any) for streaming media and DVD sales?

Jeff: DVDs. Currently, writers get four cents US for each DVD that is sold. That's split amongst the writers of the episodes on that DVD, remember, if it's a television compilation like Lost. This is a small fraction of the cost of the DVD. We'd like to see that increased, but the DVD proposal was reportedly one of those that we would have been willing to shelve had the producers been forthcoming on the new media side.

On streaming videos? We get zip. Zero. Nada. Our dear friends at Heroes (we know a couple of the writers from our Smallville days) get to see their shows streamed at abc.com, complete with commercials. There have reportedly been 90 million (no, that is not a misprint!) downloads. Know what the writers get? Zero. If they got a a tenth of a penny per download -- a tenth of a penny! -- that would be $90,000.

What we're looking for, as the distinction between broadcast and broadband whittles down to zero, is this: if the producers make money, then the writers ought to participate.

Liz B: Do the writers get anything for shows made before DVD or Internet technology was available?

Jeff: Answer: yes. That's the basis of our whole residuals structure. Every time that an episode of, say, Smallville is rebroadcast on television, the writer gets a certain payment as residuals. Those episodes of I Love Lucy that are shown on Nick at Night? Residuals. These residuals are the difference for many writers between financial disaster and a middle-class lifestyle. As the move to content delivery shifts to broadband, this classic residual structure will melt away.

Liz B: I watch reality TV, from Amazing Race to Kid Nation to Survivor. Are those writers covered by the WGA?

Jeff: For the most part, no. And we'd like to have them. Big time. Don't let anyone tell you differently: these producers are writers.

Liz B: What's a fan to do? What's a fan to do? Speaking for myself, as someone who loves stories: Hell ya, the writers are important. And as a capitalist, Hell ya, they should be paid fairly for what they do. So, is there anything we can do?

Jeff: First and foremost, understand the stakes of this negotiation, and that the only thing worse for us than striking would be for us to do nothing. For three generations, our union's willingness to sacrifice in the short term for the long term benefit has meant that generations of writers get things basic to so many industries -- health care. A pension fund. A decent wage.

Second, keep half an eye on who the writers are for your fave shows. If you hear that the show has taken on scab writers, stop watching. The good news is, this probably won't happen.

Lastly, it can't hurt to write to the prez of your favorite network and say: "Make a fair deal with the writers. They want to get back to work, and I want quality TV."

For our part, we love writing Y&R. The show has an astonishing history, amazing actors, fine writers, and one of the best production teams I've ever seen. We want to get back to writing it, and to telling the compelling romantic and human stories that have made so many people around the world soap opera watchers for so long. (Take the Jeff and Cherie dare: Watch Y&R for three days, and you'll be hooked for life). We hope that our union and the AMPTP can reach a satisfactory settlement as quickly as possible.

Liz B: Jeff, thank you very much!

And thanks for the ideas of what a fan can do. As I said over at the blog of Gotta Book (by kidlitosphere blogger, poet, and screenwriter Gregory K), I would love a button or banner or some such Internet thingee that said, "this blog supports the WGA strike." Alas, I am not techy enough to do this. Anyone?

3 comments:

wheelmaker said...

folks should also check out www.pamie.com for stories from the picket line! Pamie is a writer & story editor for Samantha Who.

Robin Brande said...

Liz, this was EXCELLENT. Thank you so much for your questions--you asked everything I would have wanted to, and more.

I'm with you: it's hard as a fan to be for the strike, but as a writer I need to be all over it.

Thanks for helping us understand what's going on!

Lisa C. said...

Thanks for this valuable interview! I am passing this on to my friends.

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