Issues faced by TV writers again are the sticking point in the WGA negotiations with the studios. In 2007, when the impasse led to a writers strike, it was residuals from series distributed online. This time around, it is the restrictive contracts for writers working in cable and on digital platforms. Under pattern bargaining, the deal between the WGA and AMPTP was expected to be similar to the recent DGA agreement with the studios with two writer-specific issues brought to the table by WGA — parity between cable and broadcast pay and the notion of exclusively and options. One of the two seem to have been resolved. “Every aspect of our contract has been negotiated and agreed upon with two exceptions — options and exclusivity — which remain points of contention between us,” negotiating committee co-chairs Chip Johannessen and Billy Ray wrote to their constituency last night. What are options and exclusivity, why are they so important to writers and what do writers seek to accomplish on them ?
While the number of scripted cable series at the time of the 2007 negotiations was a fraction of the number of such shows on broadcast, there is now parity between the two, with cable and digital scripted programming gaining an edge with rapid expansion. For instance, during calendar year 2013, broadcast networks introduced 23 new series, while cable/digital debuted almost 40, not counting kids fare. That means that soon there may be more writers working in cable and digital than in broadcast, all of them facing the underemployment problem that is at the heart of the current WGA-AMPTP stand-off.
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What has been hailed as major part of the lure of cable as a superior creative environment — shorter orders — has become a major practical problem for writers. As Johannessen and Ray pointed out in their letter, broadcast dramas employ writers for 10 months a year to produce 22 episodes, followed by a two-month unpaid hiatus before writers start work on the following season. In cable/digital, 10-13 episodes a season is the norm, though shorter orders — as few as eight or even six (HBO’s Getting On) — also are accepted.
“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,” Johannessen and Ray wrote. According to a standard cable contract, because of the long lag time between seasons, shows have an option on a writer for up to six months after the previous season finale airs or up to 9 months after the season premiere. During that time, they are not getting paid. What’s more, “during this period they are virtually unemployable because studios demand ‘exclusivity’ and ‘first position,’ preventing writers from seeking other work, their ability to make a living cut off,” the letter said. That often involves not only inability to staff on another show, but also write a pilot or work as a producer on one, and, in some cases, even write a feature. The exclusivity is strictly enforced by many studios, and any side gig usually requires an exhaustive process of seeking the studio’s permission, which may or may not be granted.
To make things worse, the problem of short orders is compounded by cable/digital’s uncertain schedules. In broadcast, built on a rigid September-May schedule, by mid-May you know the fate of your show, so you are either set for another season or start looking for new employment. There are no hard dates in cable, where series air year-round and can launch at different times every season. That means that a pickup for a writer idle between seasons can come at any time. This is a major deterrent for an outside showrunner who would be willing to bring in such a writer to work on a short-order show in second position as the writer could be summoned in by the series that has him in first position midway through the assignment and he will have to pack and leave.
Additionally, broadcast has very tight delivery schedules, with writers obligated to deliver 22 episodes over a period of 42-44 weeks. Because of cable’s more relaxed environment where orders are shorter, that can be stretched. For instance, I hear a show like The Walking Dead, which produces 16 episodes a year, takes 44-48 weeks, even up to a year to complete a season-worth of scripts. Writers are being paid per episode and, while basic cable rates generally start lower than broadcast and premium cable/Netflix, by Season 3-4 of a successful series, they achieve relative parity. However, because they work so much longer than their broadcast counterparts on the same number of episodes, cable writers’ compensation often is pushed down to “scale” levels, a minimum per week wage set for writers. Johannessen knows all those problems first-hand. After a lengthy tenure in broadcast, he has worked on back-to-back cable dramas, Showtime’s Dexter and Homeland.
Making things worse, these cable/digital issues are beginning to creep into broadcast too. The 22-episode-per-season formula is not gospel anymore as the broadcast networks increasingly experiment with shorter-order series. That’s not the 6-13-episode pickups given by necessity to series that won’t premiere until midseason but a deliberate effort by networks to break the pattern with shows that are being given the cable treatment with seasons of 13-15 episodes. The trend is only accelerating. Fox’s The Following was introduced under that model last spring, followed by CBS’ Under The Dome last summer. There have been several series designed that way this season: Fox’s Sleepy Hollow and Rake, CBS’ Hostages and ABC’s Once Upon A Time In Wonderland and Betrayal. While contracts for those series don’t appear to be as draconian as in cable, they still often include a lengthy unpaid hold following the run of the season. With broadcast TV more and more moving into a cable model, what the gist of Fox’s new take on pilot season is, writers feel the urgency to try and change the terms of employment under that model.
What have writers been asking for? I hear they had been seeking cutting of the 6- to 9-month window of being idled by an option with no pay to 3-4 months. Additionally, writers would like to be able to develop, write a pilot or a feature during that time or even produce a pilot in first position. “You should be able to make a living,” one writer representative said.
For now, the two sides appear to remain on a different page, with negotiations taking another hiatus before tackling the issue again head-on during a two-day session on March 31-April 1. And while no one foresees a work stoppage, writers are planning to hold firm on options and exclusivity. “We’re not walking back from this,” a source close to the situation said.