Huge Win for Writers over Webisodes

by Paul William Tenny

Hollywood writers have scored a big win in their fight to receive minimum wages and union-mandated residuals for their work on webisodes, in what is shaping up to be a war over payment and jurisdiction just as they've settled in for long-term contract negotiations with the Alliance of Motion Picture and Television Producers (AMPTP). The previous three-year contract expires in late October and is not expected to be seriously addressed until next summer when the directors and actors guilds begin their own negotiations.

The main issue between the studios and the Writers Guild of America is focusing on a disagreement on how residuals should be applied to content created by union writers solely for airing over the Internet, typically on the websites of broadcast networks such as ABC and CBS.
Writers have argued for years that the current residual formula that applies to VHS and DVD rentals and sales, as well as syndication and reruns on cable, were negotiated in bad faith by the studios many years ago, resulting in a lopsided bargain where writers often receive around five cents for every DVD sold while studios reap the lions share of profits.

WGA leaders are desperate not to allow the studios to dictate how the residuals process will work with webisodes allowing a repeat of past errors - including whether or not there will be residuals at all - with the current leadership elected on a platform of taking a tough stance against the studios.

NBC has been perhaps the most combative in skirmishes with WGA over webisodes, and how they should be paid for. In October of last year, writers for the Scifi Channel's hit drama "Battlestar Galactica" refused to make more than the initial batch of webisodes they were told to create unless they were paid residuals and minimum wages in the same way they are paid for writing episodes for the television show itself.

NBC seized the already-produced material from the producers and filed a complaint against the guild at the National Labor Relations Board, accusing the guild of interfering with NBC's contracts and of intimidating them into not fulfilling their obligations. The complaint includes shows such as "The Office" and "Heroes."

The Scifi Channel is owned by corporate parent NBC Universal.

As one of those complaints has finally come a head, NBC finds itself on the losing side as the NLRB has dismissed complaints of interference by the guild, upholding a decision by an administrative judge made earlier this year.

NBC and the other networks must now either negotiate with the guild on how to cover webisodes under new terms, or attempt to use non-union labor, the latter tactic having met with little success thus far.

CBS drew the ire of the Writers Guild when it began streaming full episodes of "CSI" online without giving prior notification to the guild, or working out a way for writers to receive residual payments for work already covered under the current Minimum Basic Agreement. The studios have argued that webisodes and Internet content in general aren't in fact governed by the MBA, something WGA intends to rectify this year even if it has to strike to get a deal.

According to industry reports, production of new films has increased by a significant margin over last year, while TV shooting schedules have been moved up so they'll complete their new season before July or beyond, when the SAG contract nears its end, giving the two guilds the opportunity to strike in unison, greatly increasing their collective bargaining power.

Recent votes held by SAG have shifted the balance of power for the negotiating committee that SAG sends to bargain in partnership with the American Federation of Television and Radio Artists (AFTRA) in a sign that SAG may be taking a harder line against the studios over similar issues related to Internet-only content.

ABC tried shutting out union labor altogether for a series of webisodes called "The Lost Diaries" last year, although they eventually backed down and began paying the original series writers according to their existing contract.

Thus far, the Writers Guild of America has won more battles than it has lost when it comes to online-only supplemental content, but it is far from clear how successful they will be against the collective bargaining power of the AMPTP. While WGA has announced its intention to negotiate a completely new residuals formula for webisodes, one more lucrative for writers but what they call getting fair and honest pay for their work, the studios have countered by saying the mere idea of residuals is an idea whose time has past.

The AMPTP publicly announced its intentions to, at the very least, negotiate postponement of the payment of residuals to writers until the given television show has made back its costs. The issue is far more contentious with television writers, as they make up the strong majority of working writers within the guild, and make most of their money from residuals. Writers are quick to point out that as of today, Fox continues to claim that "The Simpsons", one of the most successful and longest running shows of all time, has yet to make a profit.

The WGA responded by saying that residuals are not a bonus or a part of regular wages, but a license fee the paid to writers for the right to "perform" a TV show or movie every time it is aired, negotiated in exchange for them giving up copyright for their work, similar to the royalties a novelists receives for every book sale.

No date has been set for the next meeting between the WGA and the AMPTP and NBC Universal reportedly had no comment on the NLRB ruling.


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