Report to Council and Members – June 2015
In the last year the Writers Guild of America, East, AFL-CIO has built upon its strengths in film, television, and digital media and has continued to reposition itself to address the challenges of a media industry in transformation.
Building and sustaining a creative community
Our work is informed by our vision of the WGAE as a community of creators, an organization that enhances the ability of professional storytellers to build sustainable careers. This is not distinct from the more traditional concept of a labor union – one in which negotiating and enforcing collective bargaining agreements is the central task. Representing members in the bargaining process sustains the more comprehensive project of building a creative community, which in turn enhances our basic union work. We are stronger at the bargaining table because we have built deep and broad connections – not only with men and women who craft and distribute stories to audiences but also with the larger worlds of organized labor and politics. And our ability to deliver the goods at the bargaining table helps us broaden our reach to currently-unrepresented writers.
The WGAE’s membership is hardly a one-genre monolith. Our members include comedy/variety writers; digital content creators; indie filmmakers; screenwriters on mid- to high-budget features; nonfiction writer-producers; people who craft episodic dramas for network and cable television; public TV writers and writer-producers; people who write and produce and edit TV and radio news (and create graphics for news broadcasts); daytime serial writers; and others. As our recent surveys indicate, our members also write plays and novels and nonfiction books and articles; they direct and produce films and programs for television and for the Internet. Some members hold staff jobs; some are long-term “per diems”; most work from gig to gig. Some freelancer members have consistent – and consistently lucrative – careers in TV or film; others work more sporadically.
This diversity of professional experience might seem to present a challenge to building and sustaining a coherent community inside the Guild, but members actively engage in the cultural and political work we do. We create and support tasked groups of members who focus on specific issues like the need for a more stable base of television work in the East, or diversity, or the range of issues faced by screenwriters. WGAE staff regularly reaches out to members by visiting TV writers rooms and by communicating by email and phone and social media.
We spend a lot of time and energy bringing writers together to discuss the craft and the business, to network, to learn, and to have fun. In the last year many hundreds of Guild members (and potential Guild members) have attended dozens of workshops and panel discussions on topics like making the transition from comedy sketches to screenplays; screenwriting software programs; firearms trafficking (with the ATF); pitching techniques and opportunities; late night comedy writing; writing about climate change; screenplay competitions and film festivals; characters with self-destructive inclinations; characters who perish on-screen; tax planning; video game writing; health and justice for women; creating and marketing webisodes; character development; and more. We have offered receptions and other networking opportunities for members in Brooklyn, for East Coasters invited to participate in the Sundance Film Festival, for indie filmmakers generally, and for new members – plus, of course, the always well-attended annual holiday party. We have presented readings of TV pilot scripts. Guild staff and members participated actively in the Austin, Nantucket, American Black, Woodstock, and Lower East Side film festivals. And this year’s Writers Guild Awards brought more than 450 writers and friends together to celebrate the best television, film, news, and digital writing of the year. Many thanks to our events staff, headed by Assistant Executive Director Marsha Seeman and Director of Programs Dana Weissman.
We co-sponsor craft-oriented and social events with a variety of industry organizations such as New York Women in Film and Television; Hollywood, Health & Society; the Producers Guild of America; and Lincoln Center.
Much of our most forward-looking work is done in conjunction with caucuses that include both members and non-members. These include the digital caucus (which recently celebrated the fifth anniversary of its formation), the indie caucus, the animation caucus, and the committee of nonfiction writer-producers who work very actively in our campaign to raise standards in nonfiction/”reality” television.
The WGAE and its members are an active part of broader communities in the media industry, in labor, and in politics. We work closely with other brothers and sisters in other entertainment and news unions and in the local, state, and national labor federations. These include SAG-AFTRA, IATSE, the DGA, NABET, the Coalition of Motion Picture and Television Unions, the New York State AFL-CIO, the New York City Central Labor Council, and the national AFL-CIO. I meet regularly with the leaders of these unions and I am on the board of the AFL-CIO’s Department of Professional Employees. Guild members and staffers participate in labor-sponsored conferences, rallies, marches, and discussions. We are an integral part of the broader labor movement.
Thanks to Director of Communications Jason Gordon, the WGAE’s work in politics, in organizing, in the entertainment and news industry generally, has received extensive – and substantive – coverage in all major media. This includes The New York Times, The Wall Street Journal, The Los Angeles Times, The New York Daily News, The New York Post, The New York Observer; trade publications such as Variety, The Hollywood Reporter, and Deadline; broadcast and cable networks such as NBC, ABC, CBS, MSNBC, and Fox; and blogs such as Politico, Capital New York, Jezebel, and many others.
To broaden our creative community and to prod the entertainment industry to pay closer attention to its actual audience and its long-term interests, we have expanded the WGAE’s diversity efforts. Council created a diversity committee, which recently renamed and re-formed itself into the WGAE Diversity Coalition, to listen to the concerns and needs of diverse writers and to discuss how the Guild can address these concerns and make the profession more inclusive. In the last year the Guild co-sponsored panel discussions, receptions, screenings, and informal meetings with New York Women in Film and Television, the Minority Independent Producers Summit, the Hollywood Creative Forum East (with the Walter Kaitz Foundation), the American Black Film Festival, the Blackhouse Foundation, Women in the Arts and Media Coalition, and Women Make Movies. These partnerships expanded the Guild’s presence in the movement to make television and film more diverse, and gave us the opportunity to listen and learn more about what remains to be done.
The WGAE continues its partnership with Franklin Leonard and the Black List, an online compendium of unproduced scripts. The Black List initially focused on feature film scripts but now includes TV screenplays, especially pilot scripts. WGAE members can list their scripts in the database for free and get a 20% discount on hosting and evaluation services.
The New York State Assembly and Senate are considering legislation strongly supported by the WGAE that would modify the state’s very successful production tax credit slightly to include an incentive to employers that hire writers who are women or people of color. This legislation has solid support from the labor movement, including the state AFL-CIO and the unions representing crews, drivers, and directors, and from a variety of organizations working to diversify the entertainment industry.
Many people have talked the talk about diversity; we aim to walk the walk.
Transformed technology of distribution
Distinctions between live network television, video on demand from the cable TV company, video on demand from a purely Internet entity like Netflix, day-and-date release of theatrical feature films, and so forth are meaningful when figuring out pay levels (both initial compensation and residuals), but consumers seem to pay less and less attention to the difference. Or, more precisely, consumers increasingly expect to be able to view what they want, when they want, on the device they want. This suggests a continuing convergence of distribution systems.
We have talked a great deal about the advent of this era in which content is distributed mostly through a single pipe – the wire or cable connection between people’s homes and their cable or telecommunications providers. It has enormous implications for content creators and distributors, and heightens the importance of meaningful, enforceable net neutrality rules and limits on further consolidation of powerful media corporations. It also confirms the value of the WGAE’s long-term commitment to engage with digital content creators; to offer training programs where members can think through the industry’s transformation and can learn new skills; and to organize writers and writer-producers outside the traditional core jurisdiction. No one knows exactly where the industry is headed – how many feature films will be funded, at what levels; how films will be distributed and marketed; whether networks and cable companies will have to reinvent themselves for on-demand, over-the-top consumers; whether broadcast news will continue to adapt to changed demographics and heightened competition. What we do know is that the WGAE and its members must learn and adapt to the digital transformation.
Even the once-disruptive cable TV industry might find itself eclipsed by digital technology. Although the actual number of Americans who have rejected cable TV bundles in favor of over-the-top, purely Internet-streamed programs is still rather small, various industry players are setting themselves up for a more-digital, less-bundled future. HBO and Cablevision recently rolled out HBO Now, which does not require a cable subscription. HBO also plans to offer the service via Apple devices. Sony continues to expand its offerings via Playstation Vue (yes, people watch shows between sessions of zapping alien robots). Apple announced another iteration of its so-far-stalled Apple TV, which would offer a robust set of television network offerings online, CBS rolled out its own digital network called “CBS All Access”, Dish TV is offering “Sling TV”, and Hulu Plus still survives. Among the bigger players are, of course, Netflix and Amazon Prime, which offer television shows and feature films online. This digital distribution marketplace remains chaotic, and it seems likely that audiences will mostly compromise the most tech-savvy – at least until someone figures out how to unify the market with devices and distribution channels that are significantly less clunky. At this point, no single service has sufficient depth of content or ease of use to aggregate the kinds of audiences created by the major television networks and theater chains in generations past. But the smart money (including huge amounts of investment capital) is on some kind of fundamental digital reconfiguration.
Of course, in addition to the multiplicity of reuse outlets available online, the biggest and most aggressive companies have decided to spend major amounts to create their own original programming. Netflix and Amazon Prime are willing to devote network TV-like budgets to major shows like House of Cards. In the 2014 MBA negotiations, the Guilds were able to negotiate commensurate compensation minimums for writers who work on these big-budget “made for new media” shows.
When the WGAE rolled out its “Writers Guild 2.0” initiative several years ago we chose the term “digital media” over “new media” on the theory that this world was no longer really new. The development of so many production and distribution alternatives supports the view that digital is rapidly becoming the media, not the “new” media.
Television work in the East
Television production is booming on the East Coast, particularly in New York, which offers a 30% tax credit for below-the-line expenditures. Unfortunately, television writing employment remains sporadic, with most rooms located west of the Mississippi. The exception is comedy-variety; most of the major late night shows are produced in New York, and of course the writers rooms for those shows are here as well.
The WGAE has worked hard to address the problems created by the lack of reliable television employment in the East. We want to ensure that members who prefer to live here can build sustainable television careers; to provide opportunities to playwrights and others who depend on TV employment to realize their ideas and to pay the bills; and to help maintain the East as a vital center of American and international culture. We are also committed to improving the diversity of television writing, both as a matter of social justice and as a way of keeping TV relevant to increasingly diverse audiences.
Of course, there is only so much a union can do to affect decisions about who gets hired, and where they will work. Still, we have pursued several initiatives to build a more stable and more diverse base of television employment in the East. We have tried to learn as much as possible about the issue and how it affects our members. We track which shows are produced in New York and explore why many (or most) of their writers rooms are located elsewhere.
Several months ago we surveyed members who have reported TV earnings in the past five years to learn more about their experiences trying to make a living in the most dynamic sector of the entertainment industry. More than 250 members responded.
About 44% of the respondents reported that they had been paid to write for a broadcast network series or mini-series in the past five years. About half of those worked on one series; 47% worked on between two and five series. Consistent with the rise in scripted cable television generally, fully sixty percent of the respondents were paid to write for a cable network series or miniseries. About 47% worked on one such series; about half worked on two to five. Forty respondents reported they were paid to write for a digital series or miniseries (e.g., Netflix or Amazon).
We know that more and more screenwriters are turning to television as a way to craft compelling stories and to get their work made and seen. About a quarter of survey respondents said they had also been paid to write or rewrite a feature film (and remember that these were all folks who reported TV earnings). About 47% of these members wrote two to five features. In other words, the survey confirms that a lot of people had careers in both film and television.
More broadly speaking, cultural work on the East Coast has historically been less film-and-TV-centric than in the West. Television gigs offer playwrights the opportunity to earn a living here. Twenty percent of the members who answered the TV survey said they had also been paid to write for the theater in the last five years. More than a third reported having been paid to write a book or to write for a print publication in this period.
It is important to remember that not all television work is in Los Angeles and New York. There are active WGAE members in Atlanta, New Orleans, Toronto, Baltimore, Chicago, Boston, London, and elsewhere. Still, the gravitational centers of television writing (or at least the centers of employment) are on the coasts, in particular the West.
Our survey confirmed that many writers who start out in the East find they must move to find work in TV. Forty-two percent of respondents said they have been paid to write for a series whose writers room was located outside of New York in the last five years – and thirty percent said they had to move outside the East Coast in order to obtain or maintain employment writing for television. Not surprisingly, respondents reported that the vast majority of their non-New York writing rooms were in Los Angeles – 80, with a handful in Atlanta, New Orleans, Connecticut, and Canada, plus one in Baltimore, one in New Jersey, and one in London.
New York State’s production tax credit, which was significantly expanded several years ago, has been resoundingly successful in drawing productions to the state. Literally billions of dollars have been spent on television and film production in recent years, employing hundreds of thousands of New Yorkers. This boom has largely passed writers by. More than 70% of the survey respondents said they thought there were about the same number of opportunities – or fewer opportunities – to obtain work writing for television on the East Coast over the last five years. Considering the explosion of jobs created by the New York State production tax credit in recent years, this is a very disappointing insight.
Members do not believe the lack of TV writing work in the East results from a shallow bench of talent. About 74% of survey respondents said they thought there are enough experienced, talented television writers on the East Coast to staff writers rooms here.
This insight informs one of our most recent TV-work initiatives. To kick off what we referred to informally as the “TV Deep Bench Project”, we invited a few dozen of the most experienced TV writers and showrunners to a meeting at the Guild’s office to discuss the (mis)perception that there just are not enough writers in the East to staff shows, and to think more about what the Guild can do. Attendees generated a lot of great ideas, most of which we have already begun to execute. We have expanded what we call our “early warning system”, in which we research all TV pilots as soon as we learn they have been ordered; we try to determine whether production might take place in the East and, if so, whether the writers room might appropriately be located here. We will soon be publicizing a feature of Franklin Leonard’s Black List database which will enable writers – and producers – to learn a lot more about potential pilot scripts. Finally, Beau Willimon has been gathering more than a dozen prominent East showrunners to discuss longer-term ideas to strengthen television writing.
The fact is that even if all of these initiatives are successful beyond our fondest hopes, there will still be far more TV rooms in Los Angeles than in New York or Atlanta or Chicago. But we hope the union’s efforts will help create a foundation of writing work so people will have a real choice of where to build their careers, and raise their families.
Organizing the unorganized
Returning to the theme of broadening and deepening our community of professional creators, the WGAE is an organizing union. Under the leadership of Director of Organizing Justin Molito, organizing department staffers and committed members (and potential members) work very hard to bring more writers and more types of work into the Guild, under Guild-negotiated collective bargaining agreements.
We actively recruit writers who create their own projects for the Internet, indie filmmakers, and others who work outside the Hollywood system. We explore organizing targets in news and in other online work – most recently at the all-digital, text-and-video Gawker websites. And we strengthen our industry-wide campaign to improve standards in nonfiction/”reality” television as production continues to expand in New York and elsewhere in the East.
In the last year we won two National Labor Relations Board-sponsored elections by huge margins – one at Original Media, which is owned by the multinational conglomerate Endemol/Shine, and one at independently-owned Jane Street. Our efforts to negotiate a first contract at Original have been frustrating but we have made progress on a number of issues; negotiations have just begun at Jane Street.
The NLRB is actively investigating our unfair labor practice charges against Original and against ITV (where we have been negotiating for several years). Both companies unilaterally implemented group health plans without first reaching agreement on all terms with the Guild, in violation of federal labor law. We anticipate the NLRB will issue complaints against both companies shortly.
Nonfiction writer-producers and WGAE “scripted” members have escalated their involvement in these important organizing activities. For example, more than 175 comedy/variety members signed a petition demanding that ITV enter an agreement with the WGAE. ITV intends to produce a new comedy show on NBC starring Neil Patrick Harris, which would be impossible without the talent and experience of Guild members. The petition said, “We are one Guild – not separate unions based on genre or TV network. There is not a Guild for people who write comedy/variety, a separate Guild for daytime serial writers, a separate Guild for news writers and producers, a separate Guild for feature film writers, a separate Guild for nonfiction writers and producers. ITV cannot expect to take advantage of the talent and experience of Writers Guild members who do comedy/variety while disrespecting the talent and experience of its nonfiction writer-producers.”
In June 2014 the New York City Council conducted a hearing into working conditions in nonfiction television, chaired by Councilmember I. Daneek Miller. Industry experts, nonfiction writer-producers, Guild Vice President Jeremy Pikser, and I testified about long hours without extra pay, about unsafe work conditions, about the lack of even the most basic health and pension benefits, and about the enormous profitability of nonfiction TV shows. The hearing, and our white paper detailing these conditions, got an enormous amount of attention in the mainstream and trade press. It also seems to have inspired a coalition of a dozen or so nonfiction production companies to form the Nonfiction Producers Alliance, whose main activities to date include issuing a couple of press releases and hiring a lobbyist to tell people how committed the industry is to improving work conditions. Perhaps this counts as progress.
In addition to its work to get a diversity tax credit adopted by the legislature in Albany, the WGAE has pressed lawmakers in Washington, D.C., to maintain funding for public television. The Guild submitted detailed comments to the Federal Communications Commission in connection with several decisions that, taken together, could shape the media for a generation to come. The popular backlash against media consolidation achieved remarkable victories in 2015.
For years the WGAE urged the FCC to adopt substantive, enforceable regulations to ensure that the Internet remains open and accessible. Guild President Michael Winship worked closely with various public interest groups to expand the American people’s involvement in this critical issue. Earlier this year, the Commission finalized rules under Title II of the underlying statute (as suggested by the federal courts) which impose clear nondiscrimination rules on Internet Service Providers and prohibit pay-for-fastlane-access arrangements. This cheered the millions of Americans, including individual Guild members, who had also filed comments insisting on real net neutrality. Of course, the affected mega-corporations have already sued to block implementation; we think the rules were crafted carefully enough to withstand this challenge.
We also urged the Commission to reject two pending mega-mergers – one between Comcast and Time Warner Cable, the other between AT&T and DirecTV. By further consolidating the distribution side of the media business (and, of course, Comcast is also deeply involved on content creation side), these mergers would continue to tilt the balance of power away from content creators. The merged corporations would control access to audiences in most of the United States by controlling the electronic connection that consumers use to watch television and to stream and download shows and films. As we wrote to the FCC, “there is one pipe into American living rooms, and in most places one company controls that pipe – the cable company. Multichannel video programming distributors (MVPDs) are also internet service providers (ISPs), and online video distributors (OVDs) depend on the distribution networks that are controlled by the MVPDs/ISPs . . . Comcast/NBCU/TWC would be an extraordinarily-powerful, vertically- and horizontally-integrated behemoth with significant pricing power and built-in incentives to favor its own content over that created by others.”
Because of cogent arguments presented to the FCC and because of massive public mobilization (including our own), the FCC and the Department of Justice started expressing profound reservations about the proposed Comcast/TWC merger. Faced with probable rejection by federal regulators, Comcast pulled the plug on the deal in late April. (The AT&T/DirecTV merger is still under review.)
Throughout the last year we met and communicated regularly with the New York State and New York City offices of film and television. In September 2014 Cynthia Lopez, Commissioner of the NYC Mayor’s Office of Media and Television, invited me to speak about the WGAE’s diversity efforts at Unidad Latina, a conference presented by the Republic caucus of the New York State Senate. In February I met with the U.S. Department of Labor to discuss working conditions in nonfiction television and ways the Department might work with the WGAE to mentor and support women and people of color who want to create television pilots.
Since May 2014 the WGAE has successfully concluded negotiations with the producers of national television programs (mostly WGBH and WNET), with Hello Doggie (The Daily Show with Jon Stewart, The Colbert Report, The Nightly Show with Larry Wilmore), with NBC (covering promo writers), with WNET (also covering promo writers), and with Total Traffic Network (formerly Shadow Traffic). These successes were the product of hard work by WGAE staff (including Assistant Executive Director Ruth Gallo, Senior Council Ann Burdick, and Business Agents Jeff Schioppa and Geoff Betts) and effective mobilization and participation by the affected members.
The public TV agreement provided for a 2% increase in minimums effective July 1, 2014, plus an increase in the pension contribution rate of .5%, and another 2.5% increase in minimums effective July 1, 2015. We had a strong, active bargaining committee and the members ratified the agreement unanimously.
The writers employed by Hello Doggie (and in particular the Daily Show staff, who appeared in force at every session) stood firm and won increases in residual rates of approximately 20%, retroactive to November 1, 2014. Their solidarity also enabled us to bring the Nightly Show writers under the Hello Doggie agreement.
NBC promo writers won 2% increases in 2015, 2016, and 2017. Importantly, these increases will apply to people earning above minimum – which is essentially everyone in the shop. Promo and pledge writers at Channel 13 won 2% increases for 2014, 2015, and 2016; these increases also apply to overscale employees.
Total Traffic Network, a company that endured wrenching corporate changes, agreed to increase its writers’ pay by 1.5% per year, with full retroactivity; this also applied to overscale employees.
A final note on finances
Although the WGAE is very much an activist union, with staff, officers, Council members, and members engaged in a wide range of important and innovative tasks, we are also fiscally responsible. Our mission is to represent members and build the organization, which requires the expenditure of resources as well as time, but we are also careful with the members’ money. Secretary-Treasurer Bob Schneider keeps a watchful eye on the books, and we have managed to bring in balanced budgets and operating surpluses. Should the economy or the industry weaken in coming years, the WGAE will have the assets to remain strong.