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TV Writers Vote to End Union’s 3-Month Strike

February 13, 2008 at 6:45 PM EST
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Members of the Writers Guild of America returned to work Wednesday, after voting to end a 100-day strike that left many out of work and TV shows in reruns. Michael Winship, president of the WGA-East, discusses the details of the agreement reached with the studios.
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TRANSCRIPT

JIM LEHRER: And finally tonight, writing a news story in Hollywood as the writers strike comes to an end. Jeffrey Brown has our Media Unit report.

UNION SPOKESMAN: The strike is over.

JEFFREY BROWN: Those words brought an end to the 100-day writers’ block, which took many popular TV programs off the air, turned this year’s Golden Globe awards into a glorified press conference, and had threatened to disrupt Hollywood’s biggest night, the Oscars.

STEVEN LEIVA, Writer: Our motto was, “If you make money, we make money.” What could be more fair than that?

JEFFREY BROWN: More than 3,700 writers cast ballots yesterday in Los Angeles, New York and by fax. And when it was over, 92 percent had voted to approve the agreement that their guild negotiators inked over the weekend with the Alliance of Motion Picture and Television Producers.

ROBIN SWICORD, Writer: I think this is the best contract that we could get under the circumstances. And I think that we fought really hard for it and that it really sets us up for the future.

JEFFREY BROWN: The writers won a key concession, guaranteeing payment for their work streamed over the Internet.

ACTOR: Oh, dude, are you crying?

ACTOR: No, I’m happy.

JEFFREY BROWN: But they gave in on other areas, including a demand that the union represent writers of feature animation and the reality TV shows that many networks leaned heavily on during the three-month work stoppage.

A statement from the CEOs of eight major studios expressed satisfaction: “We can now all get back to work with the assurance that we have concluded two groundbreaking labor agreements with our directors and our writers that establish a partnership through which our business can grow and prosper in the new digital age.”

ACTOR: I was going to throw this toast out, but it’s yours if you want it.

ACTOR: When did I become the family dog?

JEFFREY BROWN: CBS today became the first network to announce that its primetime sitcoms and dramas will be back on the air beginning in mid- to late-March.

Writers for late-night comedy shows are back on the job today.

Focusing on new media

Michael Winship
Writers Guild of America, East
So what happened was that we had realized in the past -- it was sort of like -- I always say, it was sort of like fool me twice, shame on you, fool me the third time, shame on me.

JEFFREY BROWN: And we look at the deal and the future now with Michael Winship, president of the Writers Guild of America, East. We invited the Alliance of Motion Picture and Television Producers to join us. They declined.

Well, Michael Winship, what was the key breakthrough that allowed this strike to end?

MICHAEL WINSHIP, president, Writers Guild of America, East: I think the key breakthrough was the realization on the part of the studios and networks that we were reaching a break point, where the rest of the television season for this year was going to be on the rocks and that the pilot season and the prospects for the coming television season were in jeopardy, as well.

That and the sort of iconic image of the Oscars that were fast upon us, I think all of those things were factors in allowing us to finally make a deal. And I think that, after 14 weeks of being on strike, they realized that we were serious in our intent and in our goals.

JEFFREY BROWN: So much of the focus, of course, was on new media. One of the things you gained was this 2 percentage points of revenue, of online revenue in the third year of this contract. Explain why that was so important to you as you look to the future.

MICHAEL WINSHIP: Well, we believe that the Internet and new media are what television is becoming and that those are going to be the media of the 21st century, so that we had to be a part of that and that we had to have a piece of those distributors' gross points.

So what happened was that we had realized in the past -- it was sort of like -- I always say, it was sort of like fool me twice, shame on you, fool me the third time, shame on me.

We've gone through this in the past with home video and DVD, where we didn't get the deals that we probably should have gotten because the studios and networks said to us, "We haven't got a business model yet. We're not sure where this is going to go. Videocassettes are expensive to make."

There were all sorts of reasons that they had for not giving us a sufficient piece of that pie. But with the Internet and new media, we saw this as being a real thing of the 21st century for us, and so we were insistent upon that.

And when they refused, when we could not get anywhere with the talks, we had to go out on strike.

JEFFREY BROWN: When you say a real thing for the 21st century, I just wonder, does anyone really know yet how it's going to work, and how that economic model will work, and what revenues are potentially out there for you or anyone?

MICHAEL WINSHIP: Well, that's why we asked for the percentage of distributors' gross, because the way that works, if there's a great deal of money to be had, we'll get a piece of that. If it turns out that it's a bust, that there's not many -- if there's not any money to be made from it, we won't get any of that, either.

It's sort of a "no harm, no foul" situation that we think works very well.

No gains for reality TV, animation

Michael Winship
Writers Guild of America, East
People don't realize that reality shows have writers, but, in fact, they do. This will be our opportunity to organize in those fields.

JEFFREY BROWN: Now, one area where you didn't win any gains was in the reality programming. I think all of us are more used to that now, as we got to watch a lot more of it during the strike.

There's a lot of talk about how that's maybe going to continue because it's cheaper to produce; that could hurt your writers who won't be doing as many scripted programming, perhaps.

MICHAEL WINSHIP: Well, once we get this contract ratified -- and that's the next step in this process, we have to get the contract ratified, that will be on the 25th of February -- once we get past that point, we can really direct our energies toward organizing in those areas, organizing in reality, organizing in animation, organizing in basic cable and other areas.

And we can help those writers. You know, they really do have writers, a lot of these shows. People don't realize that reality shows have writers, but, in fact, they do. This will be our opportunity to organize in those fields.

Impact on viewership

Michael Winship
Writers Guild of America, East
A lot of those people are going, as I say, to the Internet and new media. And that's why we staked our claim in those areas and did so successfully in these negotiations and during this strike.

JEFFREY BROWN: One lingering question looking ahead is how much the strike may have hurt in terms of turning off viewers. Will they come back? What do you think?

MICHAEL WINSHIP: Well, I think the viewers will come back. I think they'll return. And I think we're discovering that more and more of them are going to the Internet and new media, but that's just what this strike was all about.

That's why we went on strike, because we realized that more viewership is going in that direction. And this contract is a great victory for us in getting us those first steps along the way.

JEFFREY BROWN: But if you look in the longer term, let me read you a quote. This is from Jeffrey Cole of USC, as quoted in the Los Angeles Times.

He says, "Since the 1980s, every time viewers leave the broadcast networks for a strike, summer reruns, or any other cause, they never return in the same numbers. And over the years, that gradual erosion has become enormously significant."

MICHAEL WINSHIP: Well, it's a calculated risk that we took. And we believe, we hope that it's one that will pay off.

A lot of those people are going, as I say, to the Internet and new media. And that's why we staked our claim in those areas and did so successfully in these negotiations and during this strike.

Changes to programming production

Michael Winship
Writers Guild of America, East
I think we sort of set the template. We sort of set the way for where everybody is going to go, the Directors Guild, certainly, to a degree, and now the Screen Actors. We are going to be behind them all the way.

JEFFREY BROWN: Now, there was also talk about unintended consequences of this strike, that is, whether there will be changes in the way television does its programming, whether there will be as many pilots, for example.

Jeff Zucker, head of NBC Universal, said broadcast networks can no longer spend tens of millions of dollars every year creating dozens of pilots that will never see the light of day. Do you anticipate changes in the TV business as a result of this?

MICHAEL WINSHIP: I've been in the television business for 30 years, and it's changing all the time, and it will continue to change. And I think that we will see changes in how pilots are done. We'll see a lot of it being done on the Internet.

All of these things are very exciting to us. I think, in some respects, on the other side for the studios and networks, there was a certain element of fear, which is why they were so reluctant to deal with us on these issues. But we find it very exciting.

JEFFREY BROWN: Do you think -- because next up is the Screen Actors Guild and negotiating with the producers. Presumably some of the same issues, especially involving new media, would be part of that, as well. So has this become a continuing issue?

MICHAEL WINSHIP: Absolutely. I think we sort of set the template. We sort of set the way for where everybody is going to go, the Directors Guild, certainly, to a degree, and now the Screen Actors.

We are going to be behind them all the way. They were extraordinarily supportive of us during our strike, because they recognized that this was the way of the future. And we will be with them if they should have to go on strike, as well.

JEFFREY BROWN: And in the meantime, you look to your writers to get back to some of these programs fairly quickly, it sounds like.

MICHAEL WINSHIP: Well, I think they're back at it today. I hope they are, and I'm looking forward to seeing what they produce.

JEFFREY BROWN: All right, Michael Winship, thank you very much.

MICHAEL WINSHIP: Thank you.