Biz sees writing on wall

The sound of saber rattling is starting to crescendo early.

Although the WGA’s contract for showbiz writers doesn’t expire for nearly a year and a half, the guild’s aggressive tactics have unnerved studios and nets enough that they’re already prepping for a strike next year.

“The situation has gotten worse, and we have no choice but to get ready,” said Nicholas Counter, prexy of the Alliance of Motion Picture & Television Producers, in an interview with Daily Variety. “We’re absolutely preparing for the possibility of a strike.”

In response, WGA leaders said Counter was out of line to predict a work stoppage.

“We are disappointed to hear him resort to such rhetoric,” said WGA West president Patric Verrone and WGA prexy Chris Albers. “A strike is a powerful weapon we hope not to use, but if we do so, it will be the result of a vote by an informed membership. We have 18 months before our contract expires, and we will do everything we can to avoid that scenario. We hope Mr. Counter and the AMPTP companies will do the same.”

Counter’s particularly perturbed by the WGA’s escalation of its ongoing campaign to seek increased revenues for writers from product placement on TV shows. At a Gotham news conference the WGA West will hold Wednesday, high-profile showrunners Neal Baer, Marc Cherry, Carol Mendelsohn and John Wells will join Verrone and interim exec director David Young to address issues such as writers being forced to “shoehorn” products into scripts without additional compensation.

Wednesday’s event, coinciding with this week’s upfronts, culminates a series of guild moves that have irked studio and nets over the past year — demands to revamp the contract, demonstrations, an organizing campaign that purportedly has signed up 1,000 reality TV writers, a pair of lawsuits by reality show writers alleging wage and overtime violations, denunciations of ABC/Disney’s decision to pay iPod residuals at the lower homevideo rate, recent meetings with European officials over product placement and threats to take the product-placement issue to the federal government.

Counter said Monday he’s seen enough, opining that the European foray has endangered the ability of U.S. companies to sell shows in those markets and could negatively affect the companies’ pension and health contributions to writers. He singled out Young — an organizer in the construction and garment industries before joining the WGA in 2004 — for blame.

“David Young’s background has been as an instigator of these same kinds of tactics in other industries,” he said. “We’ve never had that kind of conduct in the past, and it’s setting our relationship back 20 years.”

Young, who had been the guild’s organizing director, assumed the top WGA West slot on an interim basis in September after the board fired John McLean. That move came a week after Verrone’s slate swept to an overwhelming victory following a campaign promising the guild would beef up organizing efforts.

The WGA leadership has proclaimed since then that it’s responding to the needs of its members, changing revenue models and the disappearance of guild writing slots from primetime network shows. Guild also said Monday that it would happy to sit down with Counter whenever he wants.

“We share the AMPTP’s goal of keeping the entertainment industry healthy and competitive, but not at the expense of our members,” Albers and Verrone said. “We have been trying to engage in serious discussions with the AMPTP for months, and we welcome their offer to meet at the bargaining table.”

Counter also insisted the WGA has erred in how it’s seeking jurisdiction over reality shows, asserting the guild’s ignoring a 2004 agreement with networks to establish a process to facilitate negotiations of agreements covering WGA members working on such shows. “The DGA’s managed to sign about 100 reality shows through a similar process,” he added.

Counter said the WGA also is wrong to seek coverage of reality show employees who are working as editors or directors, since those slots should be covered by the DGA and IATSE, respectively.

Notably, the latest comments by Counter, chief negotiator for the studios and nets, have come far earlier than the usual pre-negotiation attacks on the WGA’s positions.

In 2003, he blasted WGA demands for an increased cut of DVD revenues as “excessive” and “a disaster waiting to happen.” And in early 2001, studio execs accused the WGA of seeking increases that would add $2.4 billion over three years in entertainment union costs and “bankrupt” the studios; the WGA called that number “hyperinflated” and said three-year costs for writers, directors and actors would be $725 million.

The WGA hasn’t struck since the 1980s. It stayed out for 13 weeks in 1981 and delayed the start of the fall TV season; struck for two weeks in 1985, with the key issue being video residuals; and struck for five months in 1988, again delaying the start of the fall TV season.

The 1988 stoppage had a profound impact on Hollywood, as writers lost hundreds of millions of dollars and the Big Three nets never recovered all the audience share lost to cable and local TV.

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