Publisher: Syracuse University Press
Publication date: 11/21/2012
An actor can’t be expected to improvise a scene without a well-written script.
In November 2007, the Writer’s Guild of America (WGA) and the Alliance of Motion Picture and Television Producers (AMPTP) resorted to working without a script and the dialogue and direction necessary to avert a strike.
WGA and AMPTP leaders could not agree on how television and film writers should be compensated for content written for emerging digital technology. The divide would lead to an impasse in negotiations and result in writers heading to picket lines on both coasts.
Cynthia Littleton, a journalist and author who has covered the television industry for the past two decades, gives a savvy analysis of the rift between labor and management in TV on Strike: Why Hollywood Went to War over the Internet.
Late in the morning of October 25, negotiating committee members and WGA staffers filed into a fourth floor space at WGA West headquarters. With an insider’s knowledge of every player, Littleton reports what took place next—The Chair Incident.
WGA leaders David Young, Patric Verrone and John Bowman had seats at the conference table in a space too small to accommodate all the participants. Young stood up and apologized that they had not been expecting as many people from the AMPTP.
Littleton writes that AMPTP president Nick Counter suggested everyone retreat to a larger conference room located on the second floor. “No!” Young responded and informed Counter that WGA representatives would not be moving from the fourth floor.
After uncomfortable silence, a studio labor executive raised his voice in defiance of Young and accused him of attempting a power play. Heated exchanges ensued between the two camps.
“The flap over the chairs boiled down to a lack of communication between the principal players. It was a central problem throughout the negotiations and strike period that hampered both sides’ ability to make progress on issues much more important than chairs.”
According to Littleton, anxiety about the future of technology in television and film sparked the 100-day strike against AMPTP member companies Walt Disney Company, News Corporation, Time Warner, NBC Universal, Viacom, Sony Corporation and CBS Corporation. “Compensation for new media was the crux of the dispute,” she writes. WGA’s 12,000 members, who rely on residual and royalty payments, organized to continue to receive a fair share of profits generated by their work within the uncertain confines of the Internet.
The WGA, also seeking jurisdiction over reality and animation programming, ironically appealed to the court of public opinion by going online crafting messages on videos and blogs.
“It was akin to the ‘tenth man’ effect of a cheering crowd on a baseball team, and it was largely an echo chamber for the WGA’s official positions.”
A long list of A-list showrunners, writer-producers like Greg Daniels, Steven Levitan and Mike Scully, declared their support for the guild and respected picket lines. A full-page advertisement ran in Daily Variety and the Hollywood Reporter on November 1 with the headline, “Pencils Down Means Pencils Down.”
An image of a sharpened yellow pencil that Levitan had scanned on his home computer was set with copy that read, “We, the following showrunners, will do no writing and no story breaking—nor will any be asked of our writing staffs—until we get a deal.”
Littleton compares the gains achieved by the WGA tactics with the sacrifice of allowing primetime and late-night programing to go dark and into reruns. The strike disruptions took a toll on primetime viewership, which plunged a combined 10 percent in the first quarter of 2008. Writers lost a collective profit of $100 million for episodes that would never be produced as well the opportunity costs of potential projects and deals.
“What was missing from the negotiations that led to up to the November 5 walkout was a frank discussion of how the industry’s economics are shifting for all stakeholders.”
TV on Strike by Cynthia Littleton is a highly worthwhile read for an unbiased analysis of the 2007-2008 WGA Writer’s Strike, all the winners and losers as well as the prizes at stake.
Category: Nonfiction, Television