The changing landscape of television writing has put the brakes on a successor contract for Hollywood scribes — at least for several more weeks.
The Writers Guild of America and Hollywood’s production companies have taken a second break from negotiations on a new master contract, recessing until March 31. That’s just a month before the current deal expires on May 1.
The WGA disclosed it has agreed on all parts of a new deal except for the inclusion of provisions that would cover options and exclusivity for writers working on TV series. It indicated the Alliance of Motion Picture and Television Producers has not dealt adequately with the problem created by industry practices that keep writers “exclusive” to a program during a show’s hiatus — particularly with many shows now operating on shorter seasons.
The AMPTP had no comment on the WGA’s missive.
Negotiations launched on Feb. 3, recessed on Feb. 15 and resumed March 4 before being put on hold. Talks have taken place at AMPTP headquarters in Sherman Oaks.
In a message to members Thursday, WGA West president Chris Keyser and negotiating committee co-chairs Billy Ray (“Captain Phillips”) and Chip Johannessen (“Homeland”) said the production companies need to address the issue of writers facing heightened uncertainty within the TV industry.
“For over 50 years, writing for television operated on a predictable schedule,” the trio said. “Staffs on dramatic prime-time shows worked for 10 months to produce 22 episodes, then went on unpaid hiatus for two months before returning for the following season. But with the advent of basic cable, pay TV and now Netflix-type Internet shows, that changed.”
The missive said that orders of as few as eight episodes are now the norm, and the predictability of the old broadcast season has vanished.
“As you have told us in showrunner meetings and scores of show visits, these two developments – short orders and uncertain schedules – have combined to create a serious problem for many writers,” they added. “Writers on short-order shows now find themselves working for half a year or less, then stuck on unpaid hiatus for open-ended periods while waiting to see if their show – and their contract – will be renewed.”
Keyser, Ray and Johannessen said that because studios demand “exclusivity” and “first position,” writers are prevented from seeking other work.
“At a time of unprecedented prosperity for the companies, writers’ economic circumstances should not be deteriorating,” they added. “These contract terms are clearly unfair and require a collective solution. To that end your Negotiating Committee will resume talks with the AMPTP on March 31st and April 1st for a final two-day session on options and exclusivity.”
Any new WGA deal is likely to mirror gains in the Directors Guild of America’s deal, reached last November, which included an annual 3% wage increase; increased residuals bases; significant improvements in basic cable; the establishment, for the first time, of minimum terms and conditions for high-budget new media made for subscription video-on-demand such as Netflix; and establishment of a formal diversity program at every major TV studio.
The WGA staged a bitter 100-day strike in 2007-08. WGA leaders have asserted that the resulting contract achieved the key goal of providing for coverage of work in new media and compensation for re-use on new-media platforms.
During negotiations in 2011, the WGA, DGA, SAG and AFTRA achieved a 2% hike in minimums and a 1.5% increase in employer contributions to the pension and health plans. Concessions included a freeze on primetime residuals and the end of first-class air travel to sets less than 1,000 miles away.
SAG-AFTRA and the AMPTP have not yet set a start date for negotiations on the performers’ master contracts — which are still separate SAG and AFTRA contracts, two years after the unions merged.