Neil Patrick Harris Stakes Out Pro-Union Stand as Battle Between WGA East, ITV Heats Up

Neil Patrick Harris Gone Girl Premiere - H 2014
AP Images/Invision

Neil Patrick Harris Gone Girl Premiere - H 2014

The actor says his new variety show will use union writers, but can he end a four-year fight between the guild and ITV?

Declaring to his 11 million Twitter followers that his upcoming ITV/NBC variety show “will absolutely be crafted by union writers,” actor Neil Patrick Harris set down a seemingly definitive marker in what has been a long and bitter struggle between the WGA East and ITV Studios America over unionization of reality television. The credibility and likeable image of the frequent awards show host now hang in the balance even as his 10-episode show, no title or premiere date announced as yet, has yet to take public shape.

His tweet adds, “I’ve been assured by ITV that it will be a WGA show. Period.”

That message came in the wake of a warning from the WGAE to ITV, first reported Monday by The Guardian, that WGA members will not write for the show absent a contract. Hard feelings run deep: back in February, the WGAE blasted ITV for "stealing an average $30,000 annually from each of its writers and producers" by failing to pay overtime even as the U.K. parent company’s profits surged 27 percent last year.

So far, ITV and the union have not agreed on a contract, and when the parties met on Monday to discuss Harris’s show, the company “took steps backward,” WGAE executive director Lowell Peterson told The Guardian.

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But now Harris may have rearranged the board, turning the unionization fight into one between host and production company.

The guild’s battle began in 2010 and is being waged across a harsh fault line that divides traditional scripted entertainment, one of the few highly unionized segments of U.S. industry, from the remainder of the national economy, where private sector union density has tumbled to just 7 percent of jobs.

Against that stark backdrop, movies and scripted television are virtually always unionized in Hollywood, regarding writers, directors, actors and most crew (with VFX artists, composers, lyricists, PA’s and sometimes musicians as key exceptions). In those sectors, production companies usually sign union agreements as a matter of course.

But reality TV is different, and as ITV has sought to increase its presence in U.S. television — such as by adapting its long-running U.K. variety show Saturday Night Takeaway, now the basis for the untitled Harris show — the struggle over its unscripted, and un-unionized, fare has become a test of the contours of labor’s protections, benefits and influence.

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Thus the popular Harris, tapped to host the 2015 Oscars and a veteran of Emmy and Tony Award hosting duties, finds himself in a more awkward spotlight than the ones deployed at kudofests. The late Joan Rivers’ experience may have proved a cautionary tale: her caustic position on the WGAE’s attempt to unionize Rivers’ Fashion Police led writers to blast her as a hypocrite in 2013 and to a spate of ill publicity. While the always brassy Rivers was no stranger to criticism, taking flak in a labor war might not be quite as compatible with Harris’s nice guy persona, winningly on display in the trailer for his just-published “choose your own adventure” style memoir, Choose Your Own Autobiography.

NBC too may shudder as it considers Fashion Police, which ran on sister network E!. The two siblings come from different sides of the unionization fault line: NBC has been a signatory to Hollywood union agreements for over half a century, but E! was previously owned by NBCU parent Comcast, a cable company whose operations were reported in 2009 to be only 2 percent unionized as a result of successfully resisting most organizing attempts by unions representing communications and electrical workers.

For NBC to air a show that’s under a WGA “do not work” order would be uncomfortable at best, if it came to that; whether it would be an actual violation of NBC’s own signatory obligations seems a harder question that network and union lawyers may be analyzing even now. But whether Harris’s tweet reflects a cessation of hostilities or just another phase in the battle is equally unclear.

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The contract terms the WGAE has sought from ITV over the past four years include such mainstays of unionized jobs as employer-provided health benefits, minimum compensation levels, a grievance and arbitration mechanism, paid time off and a guaranteed number of days free from work responsibilities. 

Said Peterson, “These are the kinds of provisions that enable people to earn a reasonable living doing work they care about without sacrificing their health or their families’ well-being.”

Bookmark The Hollywood Reporter’s Labor Page for the most in-depth coverage of entertainment unions and guilds.


Twitter: @jhandel