This week, for the first time since 1988, the Writers Guild of America could potentially stage an industrywide work stoppage.
At the forefront of the industry's efforts to make a deal with writers and prevent a strike is Nick Counter, president of the Alliance of Motion Picture & Television Producers.
Late last week, Mr. Counter and his negotiating committee presented their second major proposal package to the writers in an effort to limit the parameters of the discussion to topics the AMPTP considers appropriate.
In the broadest strokes, the AMPTP proposal left increasing traditional residuals on the table, while removing some of the more contested items, such as increasing DVD residuals. The WGA had not responded to the proposal at press time.
Mr. Counter took a break from negotiations late last week to talk to TelevisionWeek Senior Reporter James Hibberd about the latest proposal, and whether Nov. 1 will change the game.
TelevisionWeek: What can you tell me about the latest proposal?
Nick Counter: This is the second comprehensive proposal that we've made and it was designed to move us closer to an agreement on all the issues. We hope the Writers Guild will respond in kind. We have seven days and it's about time we started negotiating. In general, what we tried to do is narrow down the bargaining points to get to the finish line.
TVWeek: Have the writers been clear about what they want
Mr. Counter: They made their original proposals and have not moved off their original proposals. That's not negotiation. It's their demands and they're sticking to them.
TVWeek: The WGA has maintained your proposals are
unreasonable, that you're proposing massive rollbacks, and their proposals are proper residual increases.
Mr. Counter: Our approach to this has been to put the industry on a more economically stable basis than it has been recently. You've seen the massive changes taking place in television and movies. On the television side, the deficits have increased dramatically in recent years; the audience share for the four networks plus The CW have been shrinking. Advertisers are concerned. The Writers Guild represents the executive producers on the shows and they should be very sensitive and aware of those cost concerns.
TVWeek: There have been reports of reality being taken off the table. Do you see reality as continuing to be a viable issue for the WGA?
Mr. Counter: No. Reality programming is not the jurisdiction of the Writers Guild and we will not entertain that jurisdiction, except in a case-by-case basis where it makes sense.
TVWeek: If you haven't reached an agreement by Nov. 1, do you expect the WGA to immediately call a strike?
Mr. Counter: That's now entirely in the hands of the
leadership, no longer in the hands of the members. The problem with the strike, as I said to them this morning, is it impacts far more people than just Writers Guild members. We have hundreds of thousands of people who rely on this industry, and all those people are at risk. For the Writers Guild, their demands are so over-the-top and unreasonable. It's really embarrassing to anybody who understands this that intelligent people like the Writers Guild people would stand on these proposals they made back in July and not make one iota of movement.
TVWeek: How do things change for you once they have the power to call a strike at any time?
Mr. Counter: From a negotiating standpoint, we'll continue to negotiate until we reach an agreement irrespective of whether they strike. I told them this morning: They can strike for six months or 12 months or 24 months; at some point we have to reach an agreement. There are no divorces in our industry. It's just a question of when and how much damage is caused.
TVWeek: You have been quoted saying a strike could cost the industry billions and that it would be "devastating to our industry and especially the livelihoods of those that depend on it." If that's true, don't those consequences outweigh the cost of cutting a talent deal that bumps up the residuals?
Mr. Counter: Well, there's a price for everything. We're not about to increase our costs to the extent the writers are suggesting in the face of the rising deficits, [which would cause] the elimination of dramatic programming. That's just no way to run a business. That's essentially what their proposals would do—increase our deficits beyond what they are now, which is horrendous.
TVWeek: A frequent message from the AMPTP is to
say the WGA leadership wants to strike. But with the leadership's success tied to getting a good deal, I've yet to hear a reason why. How would a strike benefit the guild leaders?
Mr. Counter: You really should ask them. A strike vote and whipping up members to strike is a traditional labor union tactic. There's nothing wrong with it. We accept it, but we've still got to figure out a way to make a deal.
TVWeek: How have the weakening Nielsen ratings for scripted shows this season made a difference in the calculations that go into the network and studio stances during negotiations?
Mr. Counter: I'm not an expert. But I do know there's tremendous concern about the dropoff. The bargaining committee we have are well aware of the dropoff.
TVWeek: But does that change things at all in terms of urgency to make a deal sooner, or later?
Mr. Counter: No, what I think it drives is lower-cost programming, reality programs, news, sports, talk shows. It affects the dramatic programming that writers are used to making substantial dollars from their scripts.
TVWeek: Networks and studios say there's no online business model yet upon which to base a new media deal. But the WGA points to companies like NBC, telling investors that it is projecting increases based on online growth. Are the employers talking out of both sides of their mouth on this?
Mr. Counter: Not really. Your first statement is correct. The key leaders, executive producers of television shows, that are members of the guild, they understand. We actually have a mutual goal to develop a marketplace that's viable,
but nobody knows the contours of that industry.
TVWeek: But do statements to investors predicting growth contradict that?
Mr. Counter: No. At some point there clearly will be growth. There's no question there's an audience and potential market there; the question is how to develop the business models.
TVWeek: For months the WGA's reaction to the profit-based residuals plan kept any real negotiation from going on. With the contract deadline next week and the WGA authorized to strike, did you wait too long to take off something they seemingly were never going to agree to?
Mr. Counter: Bear in mind, we gave them an option at the very beginning of these negotiations. We can go down this road or that road. Allow for a period of experimentation and innovation … and the other option is we have to re-examine all of our business models, including the residual structures. So that's where that discussion started and we had no response from the other side. They stonewalled us, and basically still are today. Their public statements are, 'not now, not ever,' we're not going to agree to any changes? Frankly, that's just bad-faith bargaining.