After two days back at the bargaining table, there is cautious optimism that the WGA and major studios could be inching closer to compromise on at least one key issue on the table: options and exclusivity terms for TV writers.
Sources said the discussion of the concerns about the employment terms for writers working on short-order series occupied a significant portion of the discussion on Monday, which marked the resumption of talks after a two-week break. The WGA and Alliance of Motion Picture and Television Producers are facing a May 1 contract expiration deadline. The WGA has vowed to strike on May 2 if a deal isn’t reached.
Industry sources also reported that there were some back-channel conversations late last week between some members of the WGA negotiating committee and emissaries for the studios, in an effort to talk through issues in a less pressurized setting than the AMPTP conference room in Sherman Oaks. Sources say there is growing awareness by some key players in the AMPTP camp of the need for compromise to avert a strike and the disruption that would ensue.
The big problem with the compensation structure for low- and mid-level writers working on short-order shows running anywhere from 6 to 13 episodes is that they can wind up working more weeks for less money than they would earn on a traditional 22-episode order. At present, WGA scale for writers paid per episode is designed to cover two weeks’ worth of work.
But most writers above the executive story editor level earn higher than scale episodic fees that are negotiated through their talent reps. With series production timetables that frequently run longer than two weeks per episode, fees are stretched out to ensure that a writer is at least earning scale in accordance with the guild contract. That has the effect of lowering an experienced writer’s effective rate when it comes time to negotiate his or her next deal.
The WGA proposal calls for studios to pay writers the weekly equivalent of their negotiated episodic fee for each week that the writer is engaged beyond the standard two weeks per episode. The extended working terms has become a concern as more producers and showrunners seek longer periods of writing prep time before lensing begins. The proposal also seeks to set specific 12-month parameters around what constitutes a TV season, or the “span” in WGA parlance.
The process of gaining consensus on the options/exclusivity/span issues could be complicated by differing perspectives by the major AMPTP members. Because those issues affect series production for cable and streaming services more than broadcast TV, CBS and Warner Bros. are said to be pushing harder for compromise than cable-heavy NBCUniversal, Fox and Disney.
The WGA and AMPTP declined comment, citing their agreement to adhere to a news blackout while negotiations are ongoing. Industry sources are hoping that the sides will agree to extend negotiations into next week. At present the sides are scheduled to meet through Friday.
Beyond the TV compensation terms, the big headache for both sides is the WGA’s health care plan. Simply put, the plan is running out of money and health care costs are going nowhere but up. The guild is asking for changes in the employer contribution formulas that would help give the plan an influx of capital to ease projected deficits of $13.2 million this year, $25.6 million in 2018 and $65.8 million by 2020.
The atmosphere surrounding the talks became charged in the past two weeks as the WGA has initiated a strike authorization vote among members, and stepped up communications to make the case for the deal points it is pushing.
After the first round of talks ended on March 23, execs connected to AMPTP member companies complained that the guild was disorganized in its approach and did not come in with a prioritized agenda. The guild’s repeated reference in its materials to members and outsiders to the $51 billion in operating profits by the six largest conglomerates has infuriated the studio side as that number includes contributions from non-core Hollywood businesses such as Comcast’s cable systems and Disney’s theme park businesses. By the WGA’s math, 66% of that $51 billion, or about $33.7 billion, is directly derived from scripted film and TV production that all starts with the labor of WGA members.
The WGA, meanwhile, maintains that the AMPTP has so far been intransigent on key issues even as the guild has withdrawn some of its initial proposals. The guild has moved into strike footing, firing up the communications networks and infrastructure that coordinated an impressive turnout of pickets and protests during the last strike in late 2007-early 2008. The sentiment of solidarity among the most influential members — high-level showrunners and screenwriters — is growing.
“I do not want a strike,” said a seasoned comedy writer with a returning series set to begin production on a new season in June. “But I’ll be out there if we do.”