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Executive Director's Report

Executive Director's Report to Council and Members - May 2014

In the last twelve months we have made substantial gains in both our core jurisdiction and in areas that have not historically been Guild-covered, and we continue the hard but necessary work to improve conditions for writers in the television, film, and digital media world.

MBA negotiations

In April a joint WGAE-WGAW negotiating committee reached agreement with the AMPTP on the terms of a new Minimum Basic Agreement, effective May 1, 2014 to April 30, 2017.  The WGAE was represented at the table by executive staff, officers, and negotiating committee members (many thanks to Adam Brooks, Terry George, Jenny Lumet, Jason Ross, Bill Scheft, and Stephen Schiff), although the negotiations were led by the WGAW because of its larger freelance membership.  The terms resembled those negotiated several months earlier by the Directors Guild of America, adapted and expanded to address several important writer-specific concerns.

The terms of the new MBA are described at greater length on our website, but in summary they include increases in minimum compensation rates (in most instances 2.5% in the first year and 3% in each of the second and third years), higher increases in initial compensation rates for one-hour dramatic programs for basic cable, an additional .5% contribution to the pension fund, TV-level compensation for high-budget made-for-SVOD programs, and improved digital streaming provisions (a shorter free-streaming window and increased residual rates).  Some of the biggest news was in the writer-specific provisions, including a doubling of the script publication fee for screenwriters and groundbreaking protections against oppressive option and exclusivity provisions for TV writers. 

Eligible freelance members welcomed these important gains by ratifying the new MBA by an overwhelming margin.

Public television negotiations

The WGAE  represents the people who write some of the best-known and most compelling programs broadcast on public television – Frontline, American Experience, NOVA, Nature, American Masters and more.  The Guild collective bargaining agreement with WGBH, WNET, and other producers of national programs broadcast on PBS expires on June 30, 2014. 

In 2013 we surveyed our public broadcast members to learn more about their experience creating these important shows in recent years, when resources have been pressed by decreases in charitable and corporate giving and by continued uncertainty in public funding.  Most of the members who took the survey said they worked on three or more programs in the last five years.  Nearly two thirds said they had worked on the same number of programs – or more – in the last year than in the past, and two-thirds said their earnings from public television (including initial compensation and residuals) stayed the same or increased in the past year.  However, about 44% reported a decrease in earnings over the past five years, which presumably reflects the impact of the Great Recession during that period.  (42% said their earnings stayed the same.)

The Guild contract sets the compensation and other terms governing the writing done on covered programs, but more than 70% of the members said they also perform additional duties on the shows, in particular producing and directing.  About 25% also raise money through grants and other sources to cover production costs.  In other words, Guild members are utterly essential to the creation of the public affairs and cultural programs that public television viewers enjoy and rely on for thoughtful, informed perspectives on the critical issues of our time.  Without our members’ skill, dedication, and experience, the must-see shows on PBS would not get on the air.  This is the message we will bring to the bargaining table as negotiations for a new agreement begin.

We have already met with many members who create programs for PBS, in Cambridge and in New York.  They are active, engaged, and mobilized.  In further preparation for the talks, Guild members have been meeting with elected officials to encourage them to support continued federal funding for public broadcasting.  In January 2014, for example, a delegation of Boston-area members met with senior staffers for Massachusetts Senator Elizabeth Warren.  Additional meetings are being scheduled.

Diversity

The WGAE Council has created a Diversity Committee comprised initially of members of the Council.  Its first efforts will be directed at enhancing the opportunities of women and people of color to make a living writing for television, film, and new media.  The committee’s activities will include panel discussions and seminars, continued work with a number of other organizations dedicated to the same goals, and perhaps member surveys. 

The WGAE has been fighting for a program to diversify writers rooms in New York. It is difficult to build and sustain a career in TV writing because employment is sporadic, and the challenges faced by women and people of color are particularly acute.  We have pressed for legislation in the state Assembly and Senate which would create an incentive within the current production tax credit to hire women and minorities.  Guild members have made hundreds of phone calls and have sent hundreds of emails to state representatives urging adoption of this historic proposal, which has broad support from organizations such as the state AFL-CIO and New York Women in Film and Television. 

The cultural breadth of the East Coast

The culture and economy in the East is less dominated by the major TV and film studios based in Los Angeles.  Our mid-2013 survey of WGAE freelance members demonstrated the breadth of our members’ skills and experiences.  In addition to their film, TV, and digital media writing:

-          Nearly 20% of the survey respondents are also playwrights;

-          20% write novels and short stories;

-          16% write nonfiction books and articles; and

-          10% write in nonfiction television.

Most of the writers who answered the survey also performed other work in the entertainment industry in the last five years.  About 45% said they have produced; nearly 30% have directed; and about 18% have acted. 

Many members view television as a more writer-driven medium than feature film, and a growing slate of compelling, creatively satisfying shows is being produced for the small screen.  The appeal of this work is reflected in the survey results.  Although more than half of the respondents said they wrote features in the last five years, nearly 90% said they intend to seek Guild-covered work in television in the next year.

Nonfiction basic cable television

For a number of years, the WGAE has been working with writers and producers to improve conditions in nonfiction basic cable television. 

Although nonfiction shows constitute the majority of programming shown on cable television, this is a part of the industry that historically has been non-union.  We have won five representation elections at the National Labor Relations Board and are waiting for an NLRB ruling in a sixth, and we have communicated with well over a thousand writers, producers, and associate producers about working conditions and the difficulties of sustaining meaningful careers without employer-paid benefits.

In late January and early February 2014 nearly 175 writer-producers at Sharp Entertainment voted overwhelmingly for WGAE representation, and we entered a collective bargaining agreement with that employer in April.  These hardworking men and women won employer-paid health insurance, compensation minimums, paid time off provisions, union security, and a grievance and arbitration provision. 

Not all employers play by the rules, however.  In November the WGAE issued a White Paper detailing the results of our industry-wide survey, which found widespread violations of wage and hour laws.  At our press conference, U.S. Representative Jerrold Nadler, New York City Public Advocate Letitia James, and writer-producer David Van Taylor spoke articulately about the difficult working conditions that prevail in many nonfiction shops and the importance of ensuring that companies not race each other to the bottom by demanding enormous amounts of extra work without paying any overtime. 

The writer-producers at Peacock Productions, owned by Comcast/NBCUniversal, began organizing with the WGAE in 2012. In October of that year, the union filed for an NLRB election. Comcast / NBCU lawyers claimed that half of the hard-working television professionals deserved no protection at all under the National Labor Relations Act and had no right to representation--- a claim the NLRB rejected. In June 2013 a secret ballot election was held. But because of even more legal maneuvering by the company’s attorneys, those ballots are still sitting in a box, uncounted – fully a year and a half after the process began.

To call attention to this injustice and to pressure management, nearly 60 WGAE members writing for more than a dozen NBCU shows like SNL; Law & Order, SVU; Late Night with Jimmy Fallon; 30 Rock; Homicide; and Smash wrote to NBCU CEO Steve Burke saying the Peacock writer-producers deserved union protections enjoyed by all WGAE members and urging him to count the ballots.  A few months later the Peacock writer-producers, the WGAE, and the AFL-CIO circulated petitions calling on the progressive hosts on MSNBC to meet with Peacock employees to discuss conditions at the shop.  In February we presented more than 10,000 signatures at NBCU headquarters.   Of course, our ultimate target is management at NBCU/Comcast.  The company can’t have it both ways – profiting from the progressive voices of the MSNBC hosts while at the same time depriving the Peacock employees of their own voice on the job.

Our negotiations with ITV Studios’ nonfiction entity in New York continue.  

With active participation from the writer-producers we have made considerable progress but have not been able to reach agreement on a contract.  Management has received sternly-worded letters from U.S. Senator Kirsten Gillibrand and Public Advocate James.  We have obtained support from the Writers Guild of Great Britain (the company is owned by the British television network ITV) and all of the other unions that are part of the International Affiliation of Writers Guild, and the press has reported extensively about wage and hour violations at the company.  In fact, WGAE pressure forced ITV to completely revamp its compensation policy for associate producers, who now receive time and a half for all hours they work over 40 in a week; some APs had worked 60 and 70 hours a week without a dime in additional pay.

Digital media

When the WGAE started exploring the world of made-for-digital programs several years ago, most people were earning little or nothing.  

Although they were creating compelling short projects with innovative narrative structures, moments of great comedy, and new forms of audience interaction, most of the money came from their day jobs and not from advertisers, subscribers, or studios.  No one knew when real money would begin to flow to creators into this space.

We recently studied our earnings database and contracts files and found that the digital media are indeed becoming a place where writers might earn a living.  Reported earnings increased more than 25-fold from 2008 to 2013.  Even from a very low starting point, that is an astounding multiple.  It is mostly attributable to high-budget shows on Netflix and Amazon (e.g., House of Cards and Alpha House) but even taking those earnings out of the equation, we found more and more made-for-new-media projects on which members were paid $20,000 and $33,000 and $75,000, and sometimes more - and in at least one case weekly rates comparable to what staff writers earn under Appendix A of the MBA.  This is a long way from the $500 or so that was more common several years ago.  Some of these better-funded projects are commissioned by brands seeking greater engagement with potential customers, but there is a growing demand for well-crafted work distributed on web “channels” hosted by You Tube and others.  And, as the Netflix and Amazon projects demonstrate, producers have come to recognize the value of stories written by skilled, dedicated professional writers. 

That is, by members of the Writers Guild.  In our survey of WGAE freelance, 17% of the respondents reported that they had been paid to write for digital media.  Moreover, as noted above, the new MBA includes TV-level compensation for high-budget programs made for subscription video on demand entities like Netflix. 

By winning jurisdiction in the 2007-2008 strike, by immersing ourselves in the business and creative developments as they are being formed, and by negotiating new compensation minimums and reuse payments for higher-budget projects in the most recent MBA, the Guild has moved decisively to build an economic foundation for writers working in new media.

Lowell Peterson
Executive Director  

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