Issues faced by TV writers again are the sticking point in the WGA negotiations with the studios. In 2007, when the impasse led to a writers strike, it was residuals from series distributed online. This time around, it is the restrictive contracts for writers working in cable and on digital platforms. Under pattern bargaining, the deal between the WGA and AMPTP was expected to be similar to the recent DGA agreement with the studios with two writer-specific issues brought to the table by WGA — parity between cable and broadcast pay and the notion of exclusively and options. One of the two seem to have been resolved. “Every aspect of our contract has been negotiated and agreed upon with two exceptions — options and exclusivity — which remain points of contention between us,” negotiating committee co-chairs Chip Johannessen and Billy Ray wrote to their constituency last night. What are options and exclusivity, why are they so important to writers and what do writers seek to accomplish on them ?
While the number of scripted cable series at the time of the 2007 negotiations was a fraction of the number of such shows on broadcast, there is now parity between the two, with cable and digital scripted programming gaining an edge with rapid expansion. For instance, during calendar year 2013, broadcast networks introduced 23 new series, while cable/digital debuted almost 40, not counting kids fare. That means that soon there may be more writers working in cable and digital than in broadcast, all of them facing the underemployment problem that is at the heart of the current WGA-AMPTP stand-off.
What has been hailed as major part of the lure of cable as a superior creative environment — shorter orders — has become a major practical problem for writers. As Johannessen and Ray pointed out in their letter, broadcast dramas employ writers for 10 months a year to produce 22 episodes, followed by a two-month unpaid hiatus before writers start work on the following season. In cable/digital, 10-13 episodes a season is the norm, though shorter orders — as few as eight or even six (HBO’s Getting On) — also are accepted.
“Writers on short-order shows now find themselves working for half a year or less, then stuck on unpaid hiatus for open-ended periods while waiting to see if their show — and their contract — will be renewed,” Johannessen and Ray wrote. According to a standard cable contract, because of the long lag time between seasons, shows have an option on a writer for up to six months after the previous season finale airs or up to 9 months after the season premiere. During that time, they are not getting paid. What’s more, “during this period they are virtually unemployable because studios demand ‘exclusivity’ and ‘first position,’ preventing writers from seeking other work, their ability to make a living cut off,” the letter said. That often involves not only inability to staff on another show, but also write a pilot or work as a producer on one, and, in some cases, even write a feature. The exclusivity is strictly enforced by many studios, and any side gig usually requires an exhaustive process of seeking the studio’s permission, which may or may not be granted.