The Writers Guild of America told Fremantle Media, the group responsible for producing American Idol, to take a long walk off a short pier yesterday in a dispute over a new scripted Fox show by/about Ozzy Osbourne. Fremantle wanted WGA writers on board but only wanted to pay them for writing half the show, which, obviously, the WGA balked at. Patric Verrone has been waging a mostly ineffective battle against Fremantle over union coverage of some of their reality hits like Idol.
Fremantle would like to keep as many as their properties union-free as possible as it makes them cheaper to produce. There are no minimum fees, residuals, health care or pension contributions, and perhaps the worst part for all those involved, no rules or limits on overtime.
A press release from the WGA back in August revealed that Michael Prescott, a writer for "Temptation", was "awarded $14,000 in overtime wages and penalties by the California State Labor Commissioner." Fremantle has been accused many times of violating overtime laws in the state of California, something a guild contract would put an end to but also add to whatever it costs to produce these shows. For Idol and some of the more popular shows, it can't amount to very much in comparison to what they bring in.
This part was particularly galling:
Former American Idol production coordinator Justin Buckles recounted his grueling work schedule laboring behind-the-scenes on the hit Fox show for over three years: "When I was hired I was told to expect to work 12 hour days. What I wasn't told was that it would actually be 15 to 20 hour days, many times working seven days a week," Buckles said. "For all my work I was paid a flat weekly rate of $550. When I did the math it came out to less than $4.50 an hour."
Beyond the overtime issues, the California minimum wage from 2002-2006 was $6.75 per hour. It was raised in 2007 to $7.50 per hour, and was raised again to $8/hour this past January. The federal minimum wage won't reach $7.25 until 2009, but state law preempts federal law in this case which means Fremantle would seemingly have further legal liability yet to be addressed.
Under current union policy, no writer may work on the new Ozzy show without incurring the wrath -- and fines -- of the WGA. This action comes just days after the guild struck Tyler Perry's House of Payne (just the show or also the production company?) and picketed the opening of his new studio. Perry fired several writers after working on his successful series for three years after they tried to bring the show under a WGA contract -- a violation of federal labor laws if accusations turn out to be true.
Nikki of Deadline Hollywood has a letter the WGA sent out to their members yesterday about the prohibition, and of course the wire reports and something from Variety.
Writer-director and former WGA board member Craig Mazin wrote about Working Rule 8, the rule which prohibits writers from working for anyone who hasn't signed an agreement with the guild, wondering why it hasn't been enforced more over the years. Although his inspiration was the union busting efforts of Perry, the rule is what ought to prevent anyone from working for Perry or on the new Fremantle show until these problems are resolved.
Why are we not enforcing Working Rule #8?
The easy answer is that no one wants to "blame the victim." If WGA writers are working non-union for Tyler Perry's basic cable show or for a "reality" game show like American Idol, we shouldn't punish them by taking their salaries. We should attack the shows.
Well, at the risk of saying something extremely unpopular (yet again), how about we do both?
If every WGA writer working in reality and basic cable stopped tomorrow, that would have a serious impact on those shows. An immediate impact, one would hope. If a reality show chose to continue on without WGA writers, then so be it. But could most basic cable shows do so? I doubt it.
Some reality shows undoubtedly can function without writers. The writing staff of America's Next Top Model went on strike at the urging of WGA leadership last year and were ultimately fired as a result, with the show's producers claiming that they didn't need writers after all. Whether that is true or not, whether that was illegal or not, ANTM got away with it and those writers had to find other jobs.
Perry's shows are a different matter, these are truly scripted shows that can't live without WGA talent. It remains to be seen if Perry will make peace with the guild and what the NLRB will do, if anything, as a result of those firings.