Stalemate may blow out pilots

Studios break off talks with WGA

The TV pilot season has been thrown into real jeopardy by a major breakdown in contract talks between the WGA and studio reps.

The writers strike enters its sixth week today, and if it lasts another four to six weeks, it could spell the end for 2008 pilot production and imperil the next TV upfronts. Strike disruptions already have TV networks planning major changes to their programming grids for the balance of the current broadcast season.

The Alliance of Motion Picture & Television Producers blamed the latest break-off on the WGA's refusal to remove certain demands from the bargaining table, including a call for first-time jurisdiction over reality TV and animation writing, the management group said.

"We're puzzled and disheartened by an ongoing WGA negotiating strategy that seems designed to delay or derail talks rather than facilitate an end to the strike," the AMPTP said in announcing a halt to further bargaining after Friday's session.

Another major sticking point is a guild demand for new contract language allowing writers to go out in sympathy strikes with other guilds.

"Their quixotic pursuit of radical demands led them to begin this strike and now has caused this breakdown in negotiations," the AMPTP said. "We hope that the WGA will come back to this table with a rational plan that can lead us to a fair and equitable resolution to a strike that is causing so much distress for so many people in our industry and community."

The impasse is the second since the WGA and AMPTP launched contract talks July 16. The first came Nov. 4 and resulted in the ongoing writers strike being launched the next day.

When talks resumed last month, CAA partner Bryan Lourd replaced the federal mediator by taking over as an ad hoc mediator. Definite progress was made on issues like compensation for content streamed over the Internet.

But last week's latter two sessions were much less productive. Even before the Friday session ended, the WGA put out a statement saying it wanted to address "disturbing rumors" that management was about to bolt the negotiations.

The guild issued a second statement — penned by its negotiating chair, John Bowman — once the break in talks was announced by the AMPTP. It acknowledged management's demand to withdraw a call for new jurisdictions and noted several other areas that also remain problematic.

"We received a similar ultimatum through back channels prior to the discussions of Nov. 4," Bowman said. "At that time, we were assured that if we took (increased compensation for sales of) DVDs off the table, we would get a fair offer on new-media issues. That offer never materialized."

Many industryites now expect the AMPTP to turn its negotiating attention to early contract talks with the DGA, whose current contract expires June 30. SAG also has an AMPTP pact set to expire on that date but is unlikely to begin new contract talks until the writers seal a deal.

On the guild side, leaders have suggested they might try to engage individual studios in negotiations if the AMPTP refuses to come back to the bargaining table. So far, that seems more a conceptual option than a strategy built on any actual overture from one or more studios.

Meanwhile, barring some back-channel diplomacy that can overcome rampant ill will between the parties, the WGA-AMPTP talks appear off for the foreseeable future. That's certain to spread collateral damage from the writers strike throughout the regional economy, but the impact on industry professionals at talent agencies and elsewhere will be particularly dramatic once the work stoppage extends past Jan. 1.

The AMPTP said it would return if it gets a letter stipulating that the WGA will remove the objectionable demands from the bargaining table.

"We reject the idea of an ultimatum," Bowman said. "Although a number of items we have on the table are negotiable, we cannot be forced to bargain with ourselves. The AMPTP has many proposals on the table that are unacceptable to writers, but we have never delivered ultimatums."

Yet another of those big stumbling blocks for management is the guild's demand for mandatory arbitration when studios' licensing arrangements for Internet businesses are called into question.

Bowman said such language — which the guild has dubbed its "Fair Market Value" proposal — would serve as "our protection against vertical integration and self-dealing (by the studios.)"

Bowman added that AMPTP president Nick Counter has informed the guild, "When you write us a letter saying you will take all these (objectionable) items off the table, we will reschedule negotiations with you."

IATSE international president Thomas Short issued a statement after the impasse was announced, and as has often been the case recently, he was critical of WGA leaders.

"I don't believe the WGA ever intended to bargain in good faith," Short said. "They are destroying a lot of lives in the process. As a result of their irresponsible and irrational behavior, the number of IA members who have lost work is fast approaching 40,000 people … in the U.S. and Canada.

"Unless and until the WGA leadership starts behaving responsibly — which is unlikely — not only wages, health insurance coverage and pension benefits will be lost," he said. "Homes and businesses will be lost, too."

IATSE has battled with the WGA over jurisdictional rights in reality TV and animation.

WGA West president Patric Verrone, a TV animation writer, did not attend Friday's bargaining session but instead joined a protest at FremantleMedia's headquarters in Burbank. The WGA has been trying to organize Fremantle reality TV shows.

In an interview with The Hollywood Reporter on Friday, Verrone said that reality remains an important bargaining issue for the guild. Programming has tilted so dramatically in that direction that the guild's membership and health and pension funds would suffer if it is not allowed to organize reality writer-producers, he said.

"Animation is clearly a case where they are now using our workers at places where there is no (IATSE) Local 839 contract," the WGAW president added.

As for AMPTP's suggestion that reality and animation were among issues holding up negotiating progress, Verrone said the claim is "clearly a set-up."

WGA negotiators had only one hour to respond to a demand from AMPTP exec vp Carol Lombardini to remove the proposal, Verrone said, and the ultimatum came wrapped in a series of new management proposals. Those included a first-time offer to compensate screenwriters 1.2% of the producer gross on film streamed over the Internet.

"This whole week just sort of reeked of a press strategy and not an honest attempt at negotiations," Bowman said.

He added that the AMPTP's delivering an ultimatum showed "bad faith and poor form."

On Saturday, AMPTP spokesman Jesse Hiestand rejected any notion that the guild was blindsided by the management ultimatum.

"AMPTP's opposition to the Writers Guild's demand for jurisdiction in reality TV and animation could not have come as a surprise," Hiestand said. "Since the start of negotiations, AMPTP has repeatedly told them that these proposals were completely unacceptable, and on every occasion including Friday they refused to take them off the table."

Meanwhile, in other strike-related news, hundreds of out-of-work below-the-line employees and their supporters marched down Hollywood Boulevard on Sunday to call for a resumption of talks. The march was intended to draw attention to the financial plight of workaday Hollywood — those employees whose jobs depend on ongoing productions, from caterers to set builders to hairstylists. Marchers expressed growing frustration with the on-again, off-again talks, and fingers were pointed at producers and union writers.
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