WGA strikes then and now: An ’88 insider’s perspective

Tom Wertheimer, a former top Universal TV exec, is one of a handful of industry execs who were in the room when the guild’s previous five-month walkout came to an end in August 1988. Below is a thoughtful essay that Wertheimer penned about what he learned from that experience and what’s at stake this time around. Wertheimer remains a consultant to NBC Universal and most recently has taken on his first producing venture, serving as a co-exec producer with Gerry Abrams on the upcoming Hallmark Channel telepic “Charlie and Me.”

Let me state my bias at the outset.  I have, for over forty years, been a management “suit,” first at ABC and later as an Executive Vice President of MCA/Universal. Most recently, I “crossed over” and became a co-executive producer of an upcoming movie for the Hallmark Channel.

I was one of four people in the final “sidebar” that settled the 1988 WGA strike and I know well the mutual pain and suffering of a twenty-two week strike.

Strikes happen when both sides fear an uncertain future. Empathy is often a useful mechanism to evaluate what is a “fair deal,” and I would ask my writer friends and respected adversaries to consider the following:

    1. WGA Health and Pension benefits remain better than almost all the employer plans.

    2. How am I watching television these days? Am I watching the networks’ live telecast of my favorite scripted series including commercials or am I increasingly taking advantage of technological changes to find an alternative viewing option (Netflix, TiVo, DVR, Internet streaming either with or without commercials, etc.).

If I add up all of this alternative viewing, am I still reaching a smaller audience than the networks used to get with one live telecast? (And now, networks are most often guaranteeing commercials viewing, not just program viewing.) If I am being asked to pay again for these alternative ways to experience the network telecast, why shouldn’t I be paying less in initial compensation based on the diminution in “live” viewing rather than continuing to offer increased initial compensation?

And why is there no discussion of the cost of “harvesting” income on the Internet. Streaming is expensive. Companies have already written off hundreds of millions to build these highways for programming.         

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