Netflix And Cord-Cutting Era Complicates Writers Guild Contract Talks

Apr 19, 2017
Originally published on April 19, 2017 5:12 pm
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KELLY MCEVERS, HOST:

There is some drama here in Hollywood with a possible writers' strike. The Writers Guild of America is negotiating a new contract with studios and networks. The current contract expires May 1, and if the two sides do not come to an agreement, there could be a strike. The last writers' strike was a decade ago, and the industry has changed a lot since then. To talk about this here at NPR West, we have NPR senior editor Nina Gregory. Hello.

NINA GREGORY, BYLINE: Hi.

MCEVERS: What is it the writers want?

GREGORY: Well, first of all, because negotiations are ongoing, no one will speak on the record. But I have spoken to members from both sides. From the Writers Guild side, I've spoken to somebody who's been in the union for some 50 years. I've spoken to new members, including a staff writer on a network drama that is an Emmy Award-winning, very prestigious show. And he was explaining to me that he made last year $34,000.

People have an image of TV writers as being fancy-sneaker-wearing, fancy-car-driving, great-lifestyle-having writers. But in fact, the reality is most writers don't live that kind of lifestyle. And their contracts right now are based on an older model of television where there were, like, 22 to 24, 25 episodes a season. Seasons are shorter now. There are eight, 10, 12 episodes, and writers would like to have more flexibility in that contract - working for a shorter period of time - to reflect that shorter season. They'd also like a raise. They'd like the rate per episode to go up.

While we're in an age of peak television with huge international distribution of American-made shows plus billion-dollar blockbusters, these media companies - you know, CBS, Viacom, Fox, Time Warner, Disney, Comcast - they're making some pretty big profits - collectively $51 billion. That includes things like theme parks, of course. But the writers are saying they'd like a piece of that. They'd like raises. They'd like to see increases from their producers into their health insurance fund, and they'd like to see more flexibility in their contracts.

MCEVERS: What's the other side saying? What are the producers saying?

GREGORY: Again, because of their media blackout, they're not saying much. But sources close to the negotiations have told me that producers have offered up some raises as well as shorter contracts and some $60 million for the health insurance fund. The producers are very concerned about the solvency of the health insurance fund, and they would like to see more lower costs options and more contributions from the writers to their own health insurance.

MCEVERS: OK, so let's say there is a strike. What does this mean for me, you know, a TV viewer?

GREGORY: Well, the first thing you would see, I think, is that late night would go into reruns. Those shows are written every day. Of course, they're very topical. You would probably see other shows - network shows, cable shows - go into reruns. You might actually see somebody like - a company like Netflix drop a bunch of new shows because they produce shows differently from the rest of the gang. They do an entire season at once. When Netflix releases something, you get all the episodes. So they could actually, you know, maybe benefit from this.

MCEVERS: OK, so what's next?

GREGORY: The writers are voting on what's called a strike authorization. That means that they would grant their negotiating team the power to call for a strike if the two sides don't come to an agreement by May 1. The networks also have the upfronts (ph) looming. That's when they go to New York, and they show their new season to advertisers and hope to get a bunch of money from advertisers. And they certainly don't want to go hat in hand during a strike.

The last time around, NBC had to return money to advertisers because it didn't have the goods. Both sides have every incentive to come to a deal. You know, it's not just the writers here who would be affected. You have caterers. You have shoe-repair people. You have a whole industry here, not just here in Los Angeles, but around the country that would stop working as a result of this. So they all have every reason to try to work this out.

MCEVERS: NPR senior editor Nina Gregory. Thank you.

GREGORY: Thank you.

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