Writers may be in for a long wait to return to the negotiating table, if the latest verbal volley from Nick Counter is any indication.
In a Q&A conducted on the first day of the writers strike, the president of the Alliance of Motion Picture & Television Producers struck a resolute chord, stating that Sunday night’s negotiation meltdown resulted in a major fracture at the bargaining table and shrugging off progress made on key issues.
“At some point we’ll be back at the negotiating table, but it won’t be for quite a while,” Mr. Counter said.
During the 11th-hour marathon negotiating session, the Writers Guild of America dropped its demand for increased DVD residuals, which the guild considers a major concession.
“We thought we’d be having a serious discussion having dropped [DVD residuals],” said WGA Negotiating Chairman John Bowman. “A lot of writers are very angry that we did that. If they present us with a package we can bargain off of, we’ll be back at the table.”
With saber rattling in the media a key part of the negotiation process, Mr. Counter's latest comments could signal that the networks and studios are settling in for a long siege or simply represent that, at least for the moment, frustrations are running high.
TelevisionWeek: Why did you leave the table last night?
Nick Counter: We didn’t leave. We were in caucus working on additional movement and responses. One of our committee members was on the Internet and saw an announcement that the union was already on strike in New York. We asked if it was true and they said, “Yes.” And we said, “Are you prepared to stop the clock and resume negotiations without a strike?” And they said, “No, we’re on strike.” At that point, negotiations were over.
TVWeek: You knew they were going on strike at midnight. What [during your conversation] made you think that wouldn’t happen?
Mr. Counter: Because we were negotiating. We were trying to find solutions rather than striking.
TVWeek: Less than two weeks ago, when asked how a strike might change your negotiation efforts, you said, “From a negotiating standpoint, we'll continue to negotiate until we reach an agreement irrespective of whether they strike. … 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.” If that’s true, why does it matter whether they’ve gone on strike?
Mr. Counter: Because we’re in the middle of negotiations. We’re trying to work on solutions and they walk out. We’re not going to negotiate with a gun to our heads—that’s just stupid.
TVWeek: Did they indicate to you earlier that evening they would not strike?
Mr. Counter: The understanding is we were negotiating. And until we completed negotiations last night there would be no strike.
[Note: According to Mr. Bowman, the WGA negotiating committee told the AMPTP on Sunday that writers would still strike "unless we made significant progress and saw the outlines of the deal," adding, "What does it matter if New York was out for six more hours? We could have stayed and talked."]
TVWeek: The WGA said they dropped their demands for DVD residuals. How big of a concession was that?
Mr. Counter: None at all, because we would never have agreed to it—$56 million earned last year just for writers alone. And that’s not counting their profit participation.
TVWeek: Was there legitimate progress made last night?
Mr. Counter: We withdrew about 12 of our proposals [out of 35]. We’re down to about 20 on each side. No question, taking off DVD signified an intelligent move on their part. But from a bargaining standpoint, it didn’t matter, because we never would have agreed to it anyway. And now they’re on strike, so it doesn’t matter.
TVWeek:When you say it doesn’t matter now that they’re on strike, are you indicating that you’re unwilling to return to the negotiating table?
Mr. Counter: At some point we’ll be back at the negotiating table, but it won’t be for quite a while. ... From the experience we’ve had, the last strike with the Writers Guild was in 1988 and that lasted five months. The other factor here is the Screen Actors Guild negotiations are coming up next year. So if the writers decide to stay out and use that as leverage, we’re talking nine months.
TVWeek: What’s the advantage in waiting?
Mr. Counter: We’re not waiting for anything. They’re on strike. It’s up to them. We’re not on strike.
TVWeek: So are you saying they have to stop striking to go back to the table?
Mr. Counter: It’s up to them, however they want to handle it. They’re on strike.
TVWeek: There has been lots of talk of back-channel negotiations—how much did that play a factor when you were at the table this weekend?
Mr. Counter: That terminology has been thrown around so it’s hard to deal with it in less-than-concrete terms. There’s always discussions going on.
TVWeek: Some have suggested that yourself and [WGA President] Patric Verrone have so much animosity built up, with different things said in the press, that it inhibits progress.
Mr. Counter: We each have our positions. We support our positions forcefully—that’s all part of negotiations. He’s a professional. I’m a professional. We’re doing our jobs.