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Give This Man A Pencil
By ROBIN FINN
Published: February 15, 2008
THE identity of the littlest conference room inside the headquarters of the Writers Guild of America East is situation-dependent: sometimes it functions as a law library, sometimes as the caucus room for mini-negotiations deemed too private to conduct in full conference mode. Writers are secretive: Think soap opera scribes.
But in the past 14 weeks, there has been a different cliffhanger staged here, and it shows.
There is no detritus like strike detritus, and that's what still fills this room 24 hours after the official end of the writers' strike, waged mainly as a fight with producers and media moguls over Internet and digital media residuals, that commenced Nov. 5 and concluded on Tuesday night in a 92.5 percent vote for a settlement agreement.
The office furniture is buried under scads of discarded placards (Do the Write Thing!), and unclaimed Writers Guild Award statuettes. Stephen Colbert's is prominent among them; the Guild was not happy with Mr. Colbert, nor with Jon Stewart, for resuming their Comedy Central talk shows during the strike. Semiscabs? That depends on one's perspective.
Sitting among the detritus in the conference room, at 555 West 57th Street, is Michael Winship, the temporarily (he hopes) unemployed, coffee-sipping television writer/union president, who is banking on the belief that this week's settlement portends an entertainment industry feeding frenzy for dialogue written by fellows just like him.
Mr. Winship, a longtime collaborator of Bill Moyers's, is the author of the 1988 book "Television," a history of the medium that has sustained him since he dropped out of Georgetown University 37 years ago. A winner of a Writers Guild Award for "Wall Street Scoundrels" in 2004, he had a pair of television treatments in circulation before the strike. What if Hollywood holds his union activism against him?
"Maybe I should sign the name Tom Hanks to my scripts," he muses.
"Does Hollywood bear grudges? We're about to find that out. But I'd like to think it's going to be more a case of that old line, ‘You'll never work in this town again – until we need you.' "
For the three months of the writers' strike that hobbled Hollywood and rendered television a wasteland of reality shows and reruns, this cluttered cubbyhole has been used as a war room of sorts. It is here that many of the 4,000 East Coast members of the 12,000-member Writers Guild of America received the weapons of the picket line: placards affixed to harmless cardboard tubing – Los Angeles protesters got to carry picket signs attached, the classic way, to sticks, but in this city they're illegal – and nifty lapel pins shaped like yellow pencils.
"HERE you go," says Mr. Winship, a tweedy, paunchy, professorial type of 56, handing over a surplus pin and pocketing a few others for himself. Mr. Winship, who says, "I'm not a grow-a-beard-for-the-strike kind of guy," didn't realize he was on a fast-track collision course with a major walkout when he assumed the presidency of the organization in September.
He pronounces himself delighted with the outcome of the strike, the industry's longest since 1988 and, to his mind, far superior to that one in terms of solidarity and acquisitions. "Fourteen weeks is a long time to be on strike," he says, "but now that I'm on the other side, it kind of looks like a perfect strike: We started from nothing. All we lost was sleep."
Writers stand to gain, retroactively, a share in the proceeds from digital distribution of shows; in the third year of this three-year agreement, writers will be paid a percentage of the distributor's gross. The more successful the product, the bigger the payoff. This approach contrasts starkly with the arrangement writers had for VHS and DVD sales. Mr. Winship says writers get about a nickel, period, per DVD, which is, by the way, more than he picks up for his devotion to the union: the presidency, a two-year term, is unpaid.
"My mantra has always been that no union was ever framed in contentment, and no strike was ever forged in tranquillity," he says. "I don't see this as biting the hand that feeds us. I see us as recognizing what the next step in the industry is, revenues from Web-streamed video, and gaining a foothold. After what happened with home videos and VHS, this whole negotiation was a case of ‘Fool me twice, shame on you; fool me three times, shame on me.' We weren't going to get fooled again." With roughly half the union members "in between paying projects" at any given time, residuals are a lifeblood.
Mr. Winship, divorced and childless and a resident of the West Village, where his apartment windows overlook the "Sex and the City" bus tours, grew up in Canandaigua, N.Y., in the Finger Lakes region. His father, a pharmacist, died when Mr. Winship was midway toward a degree in government studies at Georgetown.
He left school for financial reasons, got into public relations, worked on the McGovern presidential campaign and wound up in New York City in 1974 as a publicist for Channel 13, where his client list ranged from the serious (McNeil-Lehrer) to the ridiculous (Monty Python).
As a writer/producer, Mr. Winship's credits include "Smithsonian World," "NOVA," and "Mancini and Friends." He has freelanced since 1985, and also writes a syndicated weekly column for the GateHouse News Service upstate. "If it had a name, I'd call it Peripheral Vision," he says.
He is not a fan of reality television – "It's schlock" – and believes the Reagan-era deregulation of the industry has lowered its standards. "But I still love television; it's been my career. Still is. Now that the strike is over, I'm looking for work, remember?"
This article has been revised to reflect the following correction:
Correction: February 16, 2008
A Public Lives profile in some editions on Friday about Michael Winship, the president of the Writers Guild of America East, misstated the purpose of a union vote on Tuesday night. The vote was to decide whether to end the strike; it was not to ratify a contract.