Emmy Watch: Producer
Contractual gains were made, but the new battle for showrunners is getting their actors and writers paid
One year after the WGA strike, the natives -- that is, the writers -- are still restless.
"The Internet has changed the face of TV and the business, and it was essential for the writers to get a foothold," says Carol Mendelsohn, executive producer of CBS' "CSI: Crime Scene Investigation," who also served on the WGA negotiating committee.
And according to WGA West president Patrick Verrone, they got what they wanted, more or less.
"The biggest gain is that we have a contract for writers in new media, particularly for reuse of TV and film libraries online, and for the creation of new content by our members online," he says.
In theory. More than one producer notes that he has "not seen a dime" from new media profits; even ones that have, like "CSI" executive producer Naren Shankar, weren't sure how to interpret the fine print.
"(Checks we're receiving) don't seem to be broken down in terms of streaming, but we are seeing checks for download stuff," Shankar says.
If someone isn't getting paid, Verrone says, "that's absolutely an enforcement issue on our part, and we're the police." But, he adds, when it comes to that "download stuff" -- i.e. iTunes profits -- studios are not yet breaking out where income is coming from. A writer on a show will get a check that indicates the payment is for an "ancillary market" and no more.
"We do know that companies have been paying fixed residuals that they're required to pay for streaming," Verrone says. "It's just harder to tell what they're paying for in downloads because they bundle that in with other residual payments."
That's not the only speedbump writers have run into. With studios now required to pay out for Web content, and with no model yet in place to prove actual Internet profits from content, studio-backed innovation on the Web has ground to a near standstill. That means few chances to exercise the new regulations.
"A lot of the cash that goes into venture projects like Internet television isn't available, so it just isn't happening," says "Mad Men" (AMC) creator/executive producer Matthew Weiner. "The success of entertainment in these gigantic companies is not really paramount. It's so distanced from the corporate agenda."
Right now, creating Internet content is "a minefield," says Hart Hanson, creator/executive producer of Fox's "Bones," who says he's concerned about asking his actors to participate in anything that's not strictly promotional.
"I look at (Internet) ideas for the studio and see if I feel like they're promotions," he says. "If it looks like one day they could be money makers, I feel less comfortable with taking them to the actors."
Joss Whedon, creator/executive producer of Fox's "Dollhouse," is unhappy with the idea of creating content for the studios, whether it benefits his show or not. "New media for 'Dollhouse' means (Fox) just gets free writing and free acting," he says. "I'm not interested in addendums to existing shows. Sometimes they're beautifully done, but I'm interested in people getting paid equitably for work like that."
And the fact is, deal or no deal, non-WGA producers still have certain expectations of a show creator and what he should be willing to do to ensure his show is a success.
"When you're launching a show and you're competing against 30-40 new shows on broadcast networks, I would wager that you'll be happy to create the content and not get paid for it because the objective is to get eyeballs to your show, which you will get paid for if it's a success," says Justin Falvey, who with Darryl Frank is a nonwriting executive producer on Showtime's "United States of Tara" and co-head of DreamWorks Television.
Insists Verrone, "They can't order a show and say, 'You're going to do everything off every platform for one price.' There are minimums for the show and the derivative content, because we want people to be competitive."
Still, it's the studios who set how much they'll pay out for a series or an episode -- numbers that can't go below a minimum, but certainly can decrease as money becomes less available.
"At some point, market forces may bring down people's prices for a particular type of work," Verrone says, "but there are still minimums they have to pay for derivative content."
In the long run, the WGA's pact may seem prescient, but for now the effects from the strike and the economic downturn continue to ripple throughout the industry.
"You're always sacrificing something in the present for benefit in the future," says Vince Gilligan, executive producer/creator of AMC's "Breaking Bad."
"The days of networks buying 80 pilot scripts and having 15-20 writers on staff are over," says DreamWorks' Frank. "Everybody's battening down the hatches and trying to be as fiscally responsible as possible."
"There's a huge change in the business," says Cheryl Heuton, co-creator/executive producer of CBS' "Numbers." "This pilot season, more shows went to Canada than anyone can remember. Actors are working under their quotes, writers are working under their quotes. The strike didn't cause it, but it exacerbated the process that was under way. We are in a new financial reality, and you can't put the business model of a show together the same way you used to."
Yet at least one creator-writer can see a long-term upside to the strike, during which many nonworking writers got together and began imagining a new model.
"They sat back and said, 'How do I do this myself?' " says Anthony Zuiker, creator of the "CSI" franchise. " 'How can we take the risk ourselves and think about telling stories in other platforms?' That's been the major shift in content creators. TV shows aren't going to be able to make it unless they have a comprehensive microsite that allows the audience and consumer to engage beyond that one hour. You need to drive viewership from device to device and then back to television."
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