Network executives discuss WGA pact

With crucial Writers Guild negotiations about to start, a trio of key industry players rattled sabers and offered a downbeat outlook Friday on prospects for a deal with scribes any time soon.

In a session at the TV Critics Assn. press tour, NBC Entertainment Co-Chairman Marc Graboff, Warner Bros. Television Group prez Bruce Rosenblum and lead negotiator Nick Counter all expressed frustration repeatedly over the current WGA agreement.

The execs emphasized their view that key aspects of current Guild compensation agreements are over four decades old and are now longer tailored to reflect TV’s fast-changing business models, given such trends as ad-skipping, audience fragmentation and using digital platforms.

The key demand by the companies when negotiations start Monday at the Alliance of Motion Picture & Television Producers will be a contract extension of at least three years in order to conduct a study to assess how to revamp compensation amid the digital landscape. The WGA’s already said it’s not interested any extension or a study, insisting that the industry has enough experience to start making deals to compensate writers for reuse of their work on cell phones and the Internet.

“We need to know what the pie is before we can start divvying it up,” Graboff said, adding that it’s still uncertain how consumers want to find and watch TV programs.

Graboff pledged that his network’s ready for a strike, which could come as early as November when the current WGA contract expires. As what the net would show once Guild-covered programming isn’t available, he declined to offer specifics.

“You’re not going to see a test pattern,” he added. “There will be a full schedule.”

Rosenblum, who said he spends 70% of his time on digital issues, asserted the industry needs up to three years to figure out how the new model will function financially in terms of what the consumer wants – and where the ad industry will want to spend money.

“It’s a brand new business,” Rosenblum added. “In 24 to 36 months, we’ll have a much cleaner picture.”

Rosenblum also contended that if the nets and producers can have flexibility in using digital platforms, the industry can reduce the 85% to 90% failure rate of new shows. That would enable the industry to become more profitable, to the benefit of consumers and WGA members.

The execs also took several potshots at recent comments by John Bowman, chief of the WGA negotiating committee. They were perturbed over Bowman’s assertions that Hollywood accounting can’t be trusted – partly due to claims such as “The Simpsons” being unprofitable.

Counter insisted that the WGA has extensive access to company numbers via profit participation agreements along with health and pension reports. Rosenblum stressed that the AMPTP’s seeking to revamp residuals so that the payments would be triggered once basic costs are recouped, adding that the proposal’s not tied to a net profits formula.

And Graboff pointed out that “Simpsons” producer James L. Brooks has several “very nice” houses.

Graboff and Counter also complained about the Guild and its conduct in a distpute between NBC and the WGA over the network’s desire for Webisodes on the hit comedy “The Office.” “We’re going to have a down and dirty fight to get them to live up to their agreement,” Counter added.

NBC asserted last year that the guild was violating labor law by telling showrunners not to provide supervisory services for the Webisodes because the guild lacks jurisdiction over supervisory services; the WGA contended that NBC had mis-characterized its actions and asserted that the Webisodes represented separate writing work from work on the series and should be covered separately by its minimum basic agreement.

An administrative law judge for the Natl. Labor Relations Board dismissed the complaint by NBC U. But the net said it was pleased that the ruling clarified that the Guild cannot prevent showrunners from “providing the type of supervisory services necessary to create Web content.”

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