Details scarce, but WGA, AMPTP will meet again



UPDATED 8:14 p.m. PT Nov. 26, 2007

The talks resumed and picketing continued.

That much was certain Monday as the WGA strike against studios and networks entered its fourth week. But bargaining session No. 18 took on a double-secret tone, with the parties meeting in an undisclosed location and continuing a recent press blackout.

The simple fact that the guild and the Alliance of Motion Picture & Television Producers were talking again seemed to spur optimism that a settlement to the months-long contract impasse might be in the offing, and it appeared additionally auspicious that the parties scheduled three consecutive days of negotiations for the first time. Previously, they had scheduled only one session at a time, and at least one veteran negotiator suggested the three-day move signaled significant negotiating traction.

Others suggested the move was simply aimed at developing traction.

"The three days was to keep people talking," a key industryite said. "They didn't want people to just get pissed off and walk away. They wanted to make sure they would keep talking."

On Monday, talks went to about 6 p.m. before breaking off until 10 Tuesday morning.

The WGA and the AMPTP launched their contract talks July 16, holding on-and-off bargaining sessions until the strike began Nov. 5. Monday's session was announced Nov. 16, following back-channel discussions about how to get negotiations back on track.

Once talks resumed, rumors quickly spread of an imminent deal. Well-placed sources scotched such talk as premature, but prominent writer-producers continued to figure in speculation over how a deal might be sealed.

John Wells ("ER") was believed to be among those still actively engaged in back-channel discussions. The unofficial talks are aimed at sorting through complex contract details that have eluded easy discussion over the bargaining table.

Such showrunners as Carlton Cuse ("Lost") and Marc Cherry ("Desperate Housewives") remain part of the WGA negotiating committee. And John Bowman, who has been a writer-producer on series including Fox's "Cedric the Entertainer Presents," continues as its chair.

But formal negotiations have been dominated by WGA West exec director David Young, and Bowman has figured little even in informal sidebar discussions, where off-the-record chats can yield negotiating breakthroughs. So industryites still are putting stock in off-site discussions among power brokers on both sides of the labor-management divide.

On the management side, a well-placed source said CBS Corp. chief Leslie Moonves has been pushing behind the scenes for some sort of resolution to the negotiations impasse.

Moonves numbered among studio and network chiefs concerned over the costs of ceding too readily to guild demands on new-media compensation. But in relative terms, he's been among management moderates, and Moonves could be concerned over how CBS' broadcast network might suffer from a long strike.

By contrast, Fox topper Peter Chernin can rest comfortably in the knowledge that reality TV behemoth "American Idol" returns to the airwaves in January, offering quick salve to any programming woes should the writers strike drag into the new year.

Meanwhile, WGA picketers resumed their stations at studio lots and other sites throughout Los Angeles after a brief break from picketing during the Thanksgiving weekend. In New York, the WGA East plans to resume its strike activities with a rally set for noon today at Washington Square Park.

The WGAE expects about 1,000 people to attend the "solidarity rally." Politicians scheduled to attend include Democratic presidential hopeful John Edwards and Rep. Jerry Nadler, D-N.Y. Actors including Tim Robbins, Joe Pantoliano and Tony Goldwyn also are expected.

"The negotiators need to do their job, and we need to do our job," said Brian Hartt, a TV comedy writer and strike captain at the Warner Bros. picket line in Burbank. "It's business as usual on the strike line."

Ivy Kagan Bierman, labor and entertainment partner at Loeb & Loeb, said it was surprising that the guild insisted on keeping pickets in place during the resumed talks.

"It is one thing to continue striking, but it is another to continue picketing," Kagan Bierman said. "I think (the guild) should have agreed not to picket this week while the parties try to work out the terms of a new agreement at the bargaining table. It would probably make the studios and networks feel a little better about the WGA if it took this tack."

As for the guild's demands in the now-resumed negotiations, it remained unclear Monday how the parties might sort through the thorny matter of new-media compensation and other key issues.

Chief among guild demands to date has been its call for greater compensation when content is reused or originated over the Internet or other new-media platforms. Boosted DVD residuals also figured in early top demands, though that seems a lesser priority to new-media pay.

The right to organize reality TV productions also has been a recurring theme, and on Monday the WGA West distributed results of a guild-commissioned survey purporting to show poor working conditions on such shows.

"Nearly all reality television writers are misclassified as exempt employees, and they overwhelmingly work long hours without receiving overtime pay, health insurance and other benefits," the WGAW said.

A new post by writer-director Craig Mazin ("Superhero!") on his well-read ArtfulWriter blog summarized his take on what proposed contract terms WGA leaders realistically could take to their members and call it a win for the guild.

"To me, victory doesn't have to include any DVD increase," Mazin wrote. "It doesn't have to include any jurisdictional gains, nor does it have to include anything at all regarding product integration."

But mandatory gains include a "a better-than-DVD rate for electronic sell-through on the Internet (and) a reasonable formula for streaming reuse," he added.

Still, staking out theoretical compromises could prove easier said than done, in part because of studio uncertainty over the costs of such concessions.

Three years ago, there came a point when studio negotiators told labor reps privately that they were willing to absorb $60 million in concessionary costs in the last film and TV contracts with the WGA. Indeed, that's what the guild finally settled for, getting $30 million in pay increases and $30 million in health benefit increases plus a sweetener of boosted maximums on pension fund payouts.

This time around, even calculating the costs of expanded pay for Internet and mobile content is part of the challenge.