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.
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.
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.
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.