WEB EXCLUSIVE: A Model Protest

Aug 14, 2006  •  Post A Comment

The picket signs are 18 years old.

On one side is printed “The Writers Guild Strikes” in red art deco lettering. On the other side are freshly hand-painted slogans. The signs are recycled from 1988, the last time members of the Writers Guild of America went on strike—evidence of how rare a bona fide walkout is among Hollywood writers.

Demonstrators wave these signs on Sepulveda Boulevard in Los Angeles picket-line demonstration outside the production offices of “America’s Next Top Model.”

For its first few seasons, “Top Model” was just another network competition reality show, and on low-rated UPN to boot. But viewership for the series has increased every year.

Now the show’s upcoming seventh cycle is serving two opposing ambitions: For The CW, the first new broadcast network to launch in more than a decade, it’s the tentpole program in the fall schedule. For the WGA, it’s a vanguard in the guild’s two-year effort to unionize story shapers on reality shows.

For both, the conflict hinges on the willpower of 12 writers spending their days marching in the sun.

But on the picket line, where TelevisionWeek spent a day with the protesters on Aug. 4, the protest is a downright congenial and quintessentially Hollywood affair

Writers aren’t furious with their union-busting employers, but rather understanding of their position. The show’s executive producer isn’t replacing his traitorous staff, but saying he doesn’t hold a grudge. There are buffet lunches, audience participation, podcasts, an ongoing documentary film shoot and guest star appearances from “Top Model” talent.

“They’re trying to turn the notion of a strike on its ear,” said Gabriel Scott, WGA spokesman.

Picket Sign 1:

‘Mok Shocked

By Writers Block’

“Top Model” executive producer Ken Mok crossed the picket line on the first day of the strike wearing a slight smile in what is described as a highly awkward moment. Ever since, Mr. Mok has entered through the parking garage with the rest of the staff. (The producers, Mr. Mok and Tyra Banks, could not be reached for comment.)

The attitude of many of the story shapers, who have been credited with a range of producer titles in previous seasons of “Top Model,” is forgiving toward their former boss.

When “Top Model” editors unionized last year, Mr. Mok asked UPN for a production budget increase, and the request was granted, according to the writers. When the writers asked to unionize this year, he tried again to get the budget upped by The CW and was turned down. (The CW declined to comment.)

The strikers said they think of him as a man caught in the middle, despite the fact he accused the WGA of trying to pressure the show into accepting unionized writers. Mr. Mok suggested the National Labor Relations Board step in.

“We’re hearing Ken doesn’t hold a grudge against us,” said Michele Mills, who’s credited as an associate producer on the show. “But it’s not in his power to do anything about it.”

When passing drivers honk in support, one could imagine Mr. Mok, in his fourth-floor office, being continually pestered by the sounds. But Mr. Mok left for vacation in Italy a few days into the protest and was sufficiently out of earshot.

Picket Sign 2:

‘We Wanna Hear

From Banks’

The writers’ collective attitude toward the show’s more famous executive producer, Tyra Banks, could best be described as disappointed.

Ms. Banks maintains a den mother persona on the series, quick to champion any underdog or social-minded cause. But Ms. Banks has been silent about the strike occurring in her own front yard.

“With all that Tyra stands for, you’d think she’d be here,” said striker Sara Sluke.

Season-four “Top Model” contestant Ebony Taylor concurred. “I would definitely ask Tyra where she is,” she said. “Do we have her support?”

Ms. Taylor is one of the picket line guest stars who was on hand Aug. 4 to support the strikers. Writers from “The Simpsons,” “King of the Hill,” “The Shield” and other shows have also joined the protest during their lunch hours.

“They seem to be getting the short end of the deal,” said Mark Hentemann, a writer on Fox’s “Family Guy.”

The outpouring of community support has resulted in a comfortable protest, even by Hollywood standards.

There’s a honeywagon equipped with lavatories and chill-out mini-living rooms on loan from the Teamsters. A lunch buffet is provided by the WGA. On Fridays, a complimentary coffee and smoothie cart is on hand. Supporters have dropped off gift cards from Jamba Juice and Starbucks.

Holding her picket sign, Ms. Mills looked at a documentary crew interviewing her fellow strikers.

“It’s like a reality show,” she said.

Picket Sign 3:

‘2, 4, 6, 8, Health

Insurance Would Be Great’

Here’s what the picketing employees on “Top Model” do: Under various titles, the staffers watch about 200 hours of raw footage. They choose story lines and character arcs. The staffers compose a script for each episode, pulling dialogue from the footage and adding short descriptions of each scene to set up the drama. The scripts go to supervisors, who send back notes for revisions. The scripts are polished until a final draft is given to editors.

“We put a lot of energy into the stories and how the subjects are portrayed,” Ms. Mills said. “[Without us], the show would not have the same story nuance. I don’t think you’d care as much for the characters.”

Junior “writer” positions on “Top Model” pay $900 to $1,200 per week, according to staffers on the show. Senior positions pay $1,400 to $2,000.

It’s difficult to quantify how much the staffers would receive if they instead worked under a WGA contract. Both sides agree reality would likely be negotiated as a separate genre rather than be subjected to existing drama rates.

In any case, if unionized the staffers would gain healthcare coverage and pension benefits and would almost certainly gain higher salaries.

Picket Sign 4:

‘The Ugly Side

of a Beautiful Show’

The “Top Model” storytellers have not been replaced. Inside the production offices, editors and producers are picking up the slack, but word on the picket line is that this season’s production is falling behind.

CW spokesman Paul McGuire said the show will go on.

“In no way, shape or form will the dispute delay the launch of ‘American’s Next Top Model’ on The CW Sept. 20 or any aspects of Cycle 7,” Mr. McGuire said.

Mr. Mok has suggested the WGA use an arbitration process endorsed by the National Labor Relations Board to determine which union is appropriate for the employees. The network is willing to abide by a decision made in an NLRB arbitration, sources at the CW said.

The WGA has called the labor board plan a stalling tactic, while a network source said the WGA is worried that a labor board ruling might hand reality story staffers to the editors, producers or directors union. With contract negotiations with the networks and studios beginning next year, the guild is eager to gain a public foothold in unionizing reality writers before sitting at the table.

The network source also portrayed the strikers as “pawns” in a bungled WGA negotiation attempt, claiming the WGA sent The CW and producers an ultimatum that gave them 24 hours notice to recognize the “Top Model” staffers as writers before beginning the strike.

But according to correspondence with producers provided by the WGA, the staffers were appealing for union status long before the strike ultimatum was issued. “Everybody was all, ‘We’re never going to make it to a strike,” Ms. Sluke said. “I don’t think they ever expected us to go through with it. We never expected to.”

The night before the strike, the staffers held a secret ballot vote at WGA headquarters.

“It was very important to us that none of us feel coerced or press
ured,” Ms. Sluke said. “At the same time, I was really worried about somebody falling out. I felt that with all 12, we had a power.”

The strikers, who had been demonstrating weekdays for about two weeks at press time, have agreed to stick it out on the sidewalk until their demands are met.