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Executive Director's Report

Executive Director's Report to Council and Members

May 2012

As the global economy has stumbled through the worst recession since before World War II, the Writers Guild of America, East and its members have, for the most part, remained strong and steady. Some members have done very well, others not so much. The WGAE’s revenues have grown while we have made the operations more efficient and productive. Throughout this period, we have worked to position the Guild and its members for the future, as technology transforms production and distribution; as financial models shift, crumble and are rebuilt. We have created programs to prepare members for new opportunities, and we’ve continued to make the Guild a place that writers can experience as the center of their creative and professional lives.

Events and programs

The WGAE’s core mission includes negotiating and enforcing collective bargaining agreements and organizing to bring more work into Guild coverage. But we also offer opportunities for professional development and fun. I think these are integrated parts of the same project, which is to enhance the lives of people who write for a living. We recently looked back at attendance records to determine just how popular our programs have been and found that we filled literally thousands of seats in the last two years. I use that awkward phrase (“filled seats”) because a number of members took more than one course. (Note to members who do not live in metro New York: We know it is very difficult to attend programs in the city, so we created a series of online videos you can view on our Web site. This includes a comprehensive set of clips on digital media and the OnWriting Online series of conversations with prominent Writers Guild members who work in film and television.)

  • Skills training and professional development

I will describe the WGAE’s digital media education program later in this report, but I am pleased to note that we filled approximately 750 seats in two years. This means that several hundred members have learned about how to understand and create digital media. We also presented a number of non-digital programs (would those be “analog”?) on screenwriting, pitching, writing in various genres and many other aspects of creative and professional development. More than 250 members participated in these sessions in the last two years.

  • Screenings

All members get DVD screeners from the studios at Awards time, but we also sponsor or co-sponsor screenings in theaters, often followed by question-and-answer sessions with the films’ writers. As one might imagine, these are hugely popular, often oversubscribed with long waiting lists. Indeed, we received approximately 4,000 RSVPs to our screenings in the last two years.

  • Social events

Solidarity is not built by workshop alone, and we have hosted many social events, including receptions for new members, for people with films at Sundance, and for elected officials; and the annual holiday party, which typically draws about 250 members.

We tried something new with the 2012 Writers Guild Awards. People often approach these ceremonies with feelings of obligation and dread; this year, we wanted folks to have fun while they celebrated writers’ accomplishments. We cut the ticket price for members in half, and nearly twice as many members attended. We changed the venue from a traditional theatre with rows of seats to B.B. King Blues Club, with tables—and table service. Our M.C., Rachel Dratch, and our presenters were, well, hilarious. 

 

Nonfiction basic cable

The WGAE has made enormous progress in the formerly nonunion world of nonfiction basic cable television. The National Labor Relations Board certified the Guild as the collective-bargaining representative of writer/producers at Atlas Media, Lion TV, and Optomen Television. We have spent months at the bargaining table with these employers, and we might be on the verge of an historic achievement—winning employer-paid health benefits, which have been virtually nonexistent in this part of the industry.

The Guild also won an NLRB election at ITV Studios. Rather than honor the results of this election, however, the company has engaged in protracted legal maneuvering, including one last, desperate appeal to the NLRB in Washington. We are confident we will prevail, but presumably this employer hopes our case remain caught in the partisan wrangling over the future of that agency. ITV’s writers and other employees are union-represented in its headquarters nation, the U.K. When the International Affiliation of Writers Guilds met at our offices in November, the representatives of the affiliated guilds were so outraged by ITV’s hypocrisy that they marched to ITV’s New York offices and chanted in a half-dozen languages for the company to come to the bargaining table. (Represented were the writers guilds of the U.K., Ireland, France, Israel, New Zealand, Australia, India, Anglophone Canada, Quebec and South Africa, as were the Writers Guild of America, West and the Federation of European Screenwriters.)

More recently, more than 100 members and activists from the WGAE and a number of other unions rallied in front of Atlas Media with AFL–CIO President Richard Trumka. We hope this display of solidarity will help us win health benefits for Guild-represented employees.

Our work representing people in nonfiction basic cable brings to mind some labor movement fundamentals. One is that, with low union density, people get significantly lower pay and virtually no health benefits—and forget about pensions. Another is that leverage is the key to improving conditions. At every step of negotiations we analyze pressure points, areas of strength and weakness, opportunities to mobilize members and public opinion. Otherwise, winning NLRB elections would do very little for the people who join with the Guild to improve their lives and to gain a voice on the job.

Screenwriters

We have been thinking through how the WGAE can better represent screenwriters as the film industry continues to reshape itself. Members have complained about free prewrites and free rewrites, and about decreased opportunities to get hired and to get movies made. In November, members answered a questionnaire, and we convened several meetings to talk about what they have encountered and what we can do about it. As a result of these conversations, we put together a high-level seminar on how to get one’s film financed and distributed, and in the fall we will present a panel to discuss how screenwriters can get work in television. We will continue to think and talk about what the Guild can do at the bargaining table; MBA negotiations are only two years away.

In conjunction with the WGAW, we sent a more detailed survey to screenwriter members to gather more detailed data and to prepare a report on which studios engage in which unfortunate practices. The results are still being analyzed and will be presented to the membership soon.

News

As audiences fragment and technology transforms the ways in which news is gathered and disseminated, the broadcast-news business is a decade or two into a fundamental realignment. Some observers think the news will become platform-neutral—that is, stories will appear variously on broadcast television, radio, Web sites and mobile devices. Researchers at Pew and elsewhere find that more and more people get news from the Internet. At the same time, television news broadcasts still aggregate the largest audiences.

The expansion of news into the digital world has not resulted in greater commitment of resources to writing, producing, and reporting. As Steve Waldman and the Working Group on Information Needs of Communities reported to the Federal Communications Commission, last year, “Television network news staffs have declined by half from the late 1980s.” And “most local TV stations have increased the volume of news production, while reducing staff—which generally weakens a station’s capacity for depth.”

As the WGAE stated in its January 2012 comments to the FCC, “Fewer newswriters, editors, reporters, camera crews, and producers means fewer independent voices; less time and effort devoted to investigation and production of quality pieces; fewer opportunities to explore contrary points of few or overlooked facts; and less time and energy to sharpen questions and make stories more compelling to the viewer.” 

In January, we asked our news members to answer some questions about the underlying trends in broadcast news, how those trends affect them and how the Guild should respond. Although the people who responded believe their employers will remain in the news business for the indefinite future, they report that their workloads have increased and their job security has decreased.

In the questionnaire, we asked members to rank a number of actions the Guild and its members might take to address the changing reality of the news business. The two top-rated action items— enhancing members’ skills and encouraging the companies to broaden members’ work— are in a sense two sides of one coin. As the technology and economics of news are transformed, the duties to be performed are also changing. The ratings suggest that members believe the best way for them, and thus the Guild, to maintain their key positions in the industry is to adapt to these changes by learning new skills and taking on new tasks.

Our collective bargaining agreements with CBS and ABC will be renegotiated next year, and we have already begun to prepare. We are meeting with members and activists in the shops, and we will distribute surveys about particular workplace issues in coming months, both to solicit members’ views and to get people mobilized.

Digital media

In the last year, we presented the most ambitious digital-media training program yet, funded mostly by the Consortium for Worker Education. This included a five-session Master Class in Digital Journalism; two separate workshops on transmedia (including a full-day session with Lance Weiler); a full-day web TV intensive program; a number of hands-on Final Cut Pro skills training classes; and seminars on social media and legal issues. We also created nearly two dozen video clips with insights from eight digital-media creators and experts and posted them on the WGAE website. Those videos will soon be offered through iTunes University, as well, together with the well-crafted OnWriting Online discussions.

Our large and active digital caucus consists mostly of people who create and distribute their own content. Money is only starting to flow into projects funded by brands and other entities. Our goal is to ensure that Writers Guild members are hired for these projects. Our message is simple: If sponsors and distributors (e.g., the premium channels on YouTube) want to attract audiences to view their content, they need compelling stories, and our members offer both the skill and experience to do that work.

Other organizing

The WGAE Animation Caucus has been reborn, announcing itself with a well-attended kick-off reception for current and potential members. The Caucus’ immediate goal is to provide a forum for conversation and learning, but of course will keep its eyes open for potential organizing opportunities. We have quietly begun discussions with people who write and produce news for the Internet, and we continue our outreach to people who write comedy for the Web and elsewhere.

Other collective bargaining agreements

We negotiated a new sideletter with Hello Doggie, which produces The Daily Show with Jon Stewart and The Colbert Report. The agreement significantly increases residuals paid to the members who write these popular and important shows. We negotiated a first-ever agreement covering The Onion News Network and a new sideletter covering Tyler Perry’s House of Payne which increased minimums and residuals by 15–20%. We also negotiated renewal agreements covering promo writers at WNET and writer-producers at Phoenix Communications.

Political work

In June 2011, a dozen WGAE members and staffers conducted a briefing for elected officials and staff people in the U.S. Senate Judiciary Committee conference room. (Many thanks to Sen. Leahy and his staff.) We were told by our friends at the AFL–CIO, who helped us set up the briefing, that attendance was truly remarkable. The message we delivered was straightforward: Creators support net neutrality, and they do not want the content they create to be stolen.

As we said at the briefing, the Internet offers an unprecedented opportunity for creators to reach consumers directly and for people to watch and read what they want, when they want. This is very different from traditional media in which major studios, distributors and television networks control the flow of movies and programs. We believe that the public and the economy benefit from an Internet that offers a greater variety of options than what is currently available on television, radio and in movie theaters. Digital technology presents a vast range of possibilities to content creators and consumers alike, and it would be a tragedy to squeeze all of that into a narrow commercial band.

As a practical matter, major entities can easily outbid independent creators of digital content for preferred access to audiences. Therefore, service-access providers should be precluded from charging for enhanced or prioritized access. Otherwise, it is almost certain that most of the content consumers view will be produced by a relative handful of major entities–just as it is now in television and film.

We also believe that an open Internet does not promote digital piracy. The WGAE strongly opposes piracy; our members lose when their work is unlawfully copied and distributed. However, we do not think permitting major commercial entities to control the flow of data and to restrict access to certain programming is an appropriate or effective method of controlling piracy. Everyone opposes car theft, but no one suggests that we permit powerful corporations to restrict access to the highways.

Lowell Peterson,
Executive Director