A trio of top television creatives took time out from the industry’s annual upfront presentations Wednesday to bite the hand that feeds them.
With labor unrest intensifying, the exec producers and the WGA staged a high-profile press conference in Gotham on Wednesday to express frustration with network policies on product placement.
While nets gathered to push fall skeds just blocks away at Carnegie Hall, showrunners John Wells (“ER,” “The West Wing”), Marc Cherry (“Desperate Housewives” and Neal Baer (“Law & Order: SVU”) joined WGA West brass at Le Parker Meridien Hotel to take employers to task for bypassing them on issues of creative control over product placement.
Wells, whose new show was touted at CBS’ upfront later in the day, asserted that creators fear product placement may soon be handed down from execs as edicts, against writers’ wishes.
“Once the model gets put into place, and it’s successful, it’s going to be hard to get (control) back,” said Wells, who served as WGA West prexy from 1999-2001.
Participants kept the tone low-key and affable in a manner that seemed aimed at courting press ahead of a possible work stoppage that could unfold by late next year. Event came two days after Alliance of Motion Picture & Television Producers topper Nicholas Counter said studios and nets are girding for a WGA strike due to the guild’s confrontational tactics and rhetoric.
At the presser, the showrunners emphasized that they simply wanted a seat at the table in discussions of product placement so they could advise on the wisdom and limits of various efforts. And despite a previous emphasis on sharing the revenues from product placements, that subject remained notably out of the discussion.
“It’s not an issue primarily or secondarily,” said WGA West interim exec director David Young. “Our primary emphasis is the creative rights element.”
Asked how management had responded to writers’ request for a dialogue, WGA West prexy Patric Verrone answered, “A roaring silence. The sense we get from reading the trades is that it’s a problem solvable by bargaining. But we haven’t been given a time and a place.”
In response, Counter said the WGA has not made such a request for a meeting officially.
Press conference was measured but pointed; creators talked often of dialogue but described — and screened — ridiculous examples of product interference in the creative process. An auto sponsor, Wells said, once asked that no auto accidents be mentioned on “ER” — not easy to do, he said, in a show about an emergency room.
Others noted that nets frequently put pressure to include product placement that interferes with storylines and could drive away auds.
“We want to make sure our voices are heard,” said Cherry, “so we’re all protected.
Counter said the question of creative control should be addressed by the AMPTP’s Committee on the Professional Status of Writers for television, composed of WGA reps and network execs such as CBS’ Leslie Moonves, ABC’s Mark Pedowitz and Fox’s Gary Newman.
He noted that Wells is a past chairman of that committee and that Baer and former WGA West presidents Dan Petrie Jr. and John Furia are currently members.
“We have a well-established procedure and ideal forum for these issues,” he said. “It’s been in existence for many years. We would certainly welcome a meeting.”
If issues of creative control and payment aren’t resolved at the negotiating table next year, the WGA could strike once the current contract expires in October 2007.
For all the jockeying, creators tried to inject conciliatory tones into their pronouncements.
“We are all pragmatic, and we know some version of this (product placement) is going to happen,” Wells said.
Counter said the Committee on the Professional Status of Writers is designed to work out statements of principle and guidelines. As to the creative control issues raised at the news conference, Counter said he’d defer to the expertise of network execs. Counter wouldn’t directly address a question as to whether the less-confrontational tone of Wednesday’s event had made him any less worried about a strike next year. “This committee is the ideal forum for addressing these issues,” he said in response.