Guilds out of the online loop

Unions not told of Eye's streaming plan

The guilds were blindsided again.

CBS’ plans to stream all of its fully owned shows online is just the latest announcement of a new digital delivery system on which Hollywood’s creative guilds — the Directors Guild of America, the Screen Actors Guild and the Writers Guild of America — find themselves in the dark.

And that may portend a rocky round of labor negotiations next year.

Tuesday’s announcement contained no mention of how members of DGA, SAG and the WGA will be compensated, if at all, for airings of the programs. And the guilds — which usually have only general language in their contracts covering the myriad new technologies — offered no response Tuesday.

CBS spokesman Chris Ender admitted that the network hadn’t told the guilds about the announcement ahead of time.

“We’re under no obligation to provide advance notification on announcements about where our content is distributed,” he added. “Courtesy calls are sometimes made, but for competitive and confidentiality reasons, such a scenario is often impossible.”

It’s been a similar story following other advances, mostly notably Walt Disney Co.’s October announcement that it planned to sell TV shows via Apple’s iTunes Music Store. The guilds complained that they weren’t notified in advance and said that they expected to be compensated at pay TV rates, which are four times higher than homevideo rates.

Five months later, when the first batch of residual checks were due, Disney paid at the homevid rate.

To be sure, the revenue from digital sales and ad-supported streaming is still miniscule. But media execs expect digital distribution to be a big part of their future businesses.

Guild contracts — negotiated through the Alliance of Motion Picture & Television Producers — contain side letters that acknowledge the companies are participating in an evolving marketplace that will require negotiations. And the guilds have attempted to avoid inflaming the situation, usually saying they’ve agreed not to negotiate in the press.

But the uncertainty over the new revenue streams is causing some in Hollywood to fret that guild leaders may use this area as a rallying cry to advocate a strike when the WGA contract runs out in October 2007 and when SAG and the DGA pacts run out in mid-2008. AMPTP president Nick Counter has already said he expects the WGA to strike due to the belligerence of that union’s leadership.

The guilds scored a single notable success in April when they reached an agreement with Touchstone Television on ABC’s “Lost” spinoff for mobile phones with residuals at the pay TV rate.

The Alphabet net first announced plans for “Lost Video Diaries” in November and planned to produce the series separate from Touchstone so it could use non-guild talent. But the skein’s writer-producers, actors and directors refused to support the spinoff if it was non-union, allowing the DGA, WGA and SAG to present ABC-Disney with a united front.

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