Monday, December 17, 2007

Short Takes – December 16, 2007

Some interesting stuff came up this week, some strike related and some not so much. Okay most everything these days is strike related, but you know what I mean.

Oh, and by the way, this is for Phish, who made a comment on an earlier post. Before I reveal the comment let me just tell you that Phish is the guy I mentioned last week who commented in TVSquad that the best writers in Hollywood should just go back to work, and that unions in general were un-capitalistic and defied the concept of supply and demand. Not content to troll about the strike on a totally unrelated topic, he decided to pop up here to write the following: "Brent, you are a 2 bit writer and a failure. pls go get a real job and provide for your family for f***s sake! You're such a loser, i feel sorry for you!" (I edited his language). To which all I have to say is that he's about as wrong about this as he is about unions which in my view is pretty wrong. I am not a "2 bit writer"; no one will pay me that much. I have had a couple of articles on wargaming published – and paid for – many moons ago, and that's probably more than Phish can say. I also had my own zine, which had a small but dedicated following. More to the point I don't write as a job, never have. I write as a hobby – some people build model railroads, I write for relaxation. If a little money comes my way, well, I'm grateful but I hardly depend on it. Okay, enough of that.

Journeyman and Bionic Woman cancelled?: The networks haven't exactly been forthcoming with announcements about cancellations. A lot of the "news" that we get have actually been rumours reported by "our sources." Which is all well and good I suppose but it's not like someone from the network sending out a press release saying something like, "This show isn't working so we're kicking it to the curb." We're not getting that this year. For example here's what The Sun says about the cancellation of Bionic Woman (which starred former East Enders favourite Michelle Ryan and therefore of great interest to the Brits): "The ex-EastEnders star stunned Hollywood by landing the lead role in the much anticipated remake of 70s hit The Bionic Woman, but the show is reportedly about to be axed.... A final decision is expected to be announced in the coming weeks." The title of the article though is Bionic Woman Scrapped. And the same thing is true about Journeyman; E!'s Watch With Kristin has an article titled Exclusive: Journeyman's Journey Is Over but what she reports is basically rumour: "Sources tell me tonight that Journeyman has been closed down. No word yet on whether the series' final two episodes will air as scheduled next Monday and Wednesday on NBC, but we can all keep our fingers crossed."

Now I have no doubt that both of these shows are toast, and a big sign came when Chuck and Life got their "back nines" but Journeyman and Bionic Woman didn't. Neither show was getting spectacular ratings, with Bionic Woman debuting with 14 million viewers but after eight episodes dropping to 6 million. At least in the case of Journeyman – which draws about the same number of viewers or a few hundred thousand less – the blame can quite certainly be placed on CSI: Miami. There hasn't been a series yet that has been able to stand up to that juggernaut on either NBC or ABC.

I don't know about Journeyman, a show which seems to have developed the sort of fan base that sends nuts to TV executives – or in the case of Journeyman boxes of Rice-a-roni (the San Francisco treat – the show is set in San Francisco). It's on Monday night and I'm one of those people who tapes CSI: Miami on my bowling night. Bionic Woman, on the other hand is a case of expectations not being met. And while it's easy to blame the lead actress (Ryan normally speaks with a British accent and I've heard the rather absurd assertion that Ryan can't do an American accent and act at the same time), the problems with the show lie a lot deeper. Part of it is the writing but in my opinion at least the entire concept was wrong. Revived by David Eick who was one of the producers of Battlestar Galactica, like Galactica the original Bionic Woman was also a show created by Glenn Larson, so naturally but probably unrealistically viewers expected this revival to be as spectacular as the revival of Galactica. The problem is that I'm fairly convinced (and was convinced when the show debuted) that there wasn't as much you could do with the concept of Bionic Woman. What are you really able to do with a woman with replacement parts today that you couldn't do in the 1970s. I suppose you could make the character darker – I suspect that was the real attraction of Katie Sackoff's character Sara Corvus who was an almost immediate fan favourite – but how do you make a darker protagonist attractive to audiences from week to week. Instead Jamie Summers on the 2007 revival of Bionic Woman was essentially an innocent thrust into the world of spying for which she was truly unprepared, just as the original Jamie was. I think the public wanted something more.

Late shows going back soon?: This is another area where rumours abound, although there is one aspect that is out of the realm of rumours. I'll get into that one in the next item because it's an interesting one. The reports are that at least some of the major late night talk shows will be returning towards the beginning of January 2008. Variety is reporting that, "the betting in network circles is that several hosts will be back on the air by Jan. 7, if not sooner," possibly with Letterman, Leno, Ferguson and O'Brien coming back at the same time. It seems more likely however that Leno and O'Brien will be coming back for sure: "Latenight insiders, however, believe Leno and O'Brien are most likely to return in early January, no matter what Letterman decides. NBC has to be concerned about the plunging ratings for both shows, which in recent weeks have lost nearly half their audience." While Kilborn's show has been doing well with audiences, he is financially the least secure of the late night hosts, and according to Nikki Finke, the financial strain of paying at least some of the salaries for "below the line employees" of his show may have pushed him to the edge of bankruptcy so that if the others go back without writers, he may well be forced to as well.

Here's an interesting thought. While the networks may well feel that they're winning a victory over the WGA by forcing the late night talk shows back into production, this can be a double edged sword if Leno, O'Brien and Kimmel make sure that everyone knows that they're doing this under protest, that they need their writers, that the shows aren't going to be as funny without the writers, and particularly if the shows suck without the writers, this could help strengthen the support, or at least the understanding, of the writers' cause amongst the general public.

Letterman and Ferguson back with writers?: This item has a lot sounder basis in fact, and it may spell considerable trouble for the other talk shows. On Saturday the WGA announced that they would be open to offering "interim agreements" to independent producers and any of the media companies that sought to break ranks. Previously they had offered such agreements to the Kennedy Center Honours and to the Screen Actors Guild Awards. An interim agreement, as explained by Mark Evanier is when, "an independent producer says, in effect, "If you'll take me off the Strike List and let my writers return to work, I'll agree to your terms." There are variations on how these pacts are structured but in most cases, the Indie has a Favored Nations option. That is, he signs a new contract that the WGA draws up and then when we make our deal with the AMPTP — a deal which presumably will have more favorable terms for a Producer — the Indie can elect to switch to that. In any case, the principle is that they agree to sign with us, we go back to work at that studio and then, whenever the new contract is finalized, it displaces the interim agreement." The first producer to announce that he will be seeking an interim agreement is David Letterman's company Worldwide Pants, producer of The Late Show and The Late Late Show, and while there may be hitches it looks as though the WGA seems inclined to make the deal.

Why can Letterman make this deal and Leno and the others can't and, more to the point, why would the WGA be willing to accept Letterman's offer? The first point is fairly simple to answer; Letterman has followed Johnny Carson's practice and owns his show outright through his production company. CBS only serves as the show's distributor. According to the Tonight Show website Leno's production company Big Dog Productions does the show "in association with NBC Studios." Similarly Conan O'Brien produces Late Night with Conan O'Brien through his company Conaco with Broadway Video (Lorne Michaels's company), "in association with NBC Universal Television Studios" and Jimmy Kimmel Live is produced by Jackhole Productions (which Kimmel owns in partnership with Adam Carolla and producer Daniel Kellison) "in association with ABC Studios." This means that Letterman can make a deal for his show and Craig Ferguson's without the intervention from CBS. And as Mark Evanier points out Letterman is pretty much immune from the issues that AMPTP considers deal killers (the issues that they used as an excuse to pull out of the negotiations): "Letterman, of course, doesn't have to worry about some of the "deal killer" issues that are presently said to be an obstacle to a WGA/AMPTP settlement. He doesn't produce any "reality" shows. He doesn't produce any cartoons. Excerpts from his shows do stream on the Internet via the CBS site but that could be curtailed or kept within a window that the WGA would agree was promotional. There are, as yet, no DVDs of old episodes of Dave's show." As to why the Guild is willing to make a deal with Letterman, beyond the fact that it's a crack in the wall (albeit a tiny one) but Letterman – a veteran of the '88 strike who came back without writers when Carson did – has also been extremely loyal to his workers. As Rob Burnett, the producer of The Late Show with David Letterman describes it, "Worldwide Pants has always been a writer-friendly company. Dave has been a member of the WGA for more than 30 years, and I have been a member for more than 20." According to Deadline Hollywood Daily, not has Letterman been paying his non-writing staff (about $300,000) but he also pays the rent on the Ed Sullivan Theater and insurance costs of 200+ employees. According to a source, "triple that figure [the $300,000] and you'll be close to what he's been shelling out a week for six weeks. I'm tired of everyone being lumped together for taking roughly the same out-of-pocket hit. It's not close." If nothing else that builds up a huge amount of good will. For their part CBS seems a bit conflicted over this. In a press release, CBS stated, "We respect the intent of Worldwide Pants to serve the interests of its independent production company and its employees by seeking this interim agreement with the WGA. However, this development should not confuse the fact that CBS remains unified with the AMPTP, and committed to working with the member companies to reach a fair and reasonable agreement with the WGA that positions everyone in our industry for success in a rapidly changing marketplace." In other words, they're happy that Letterman wants to come back with writers (for reasons that will become clear) but want to cover their butts by making it clear that CBS isn't going to be standing in line to make their own interim agreement.

This is a big thing though – assuming of course that the interim agreement is granted – because it puts the late night shows that are going to be at a significant disadvantage when and if they come back without writers. It's not just the obvious either, the lack of monologues and the other services the writers provide for the shows. If you're an actor are you more likely to want to appear on Leno, passing through the WGA picket line and probably being called every name in the book, or would you be more likely to go on Letterman's show, which would not only be a pleasanter experience thanks to the lack of pickets. In fact it could almost be seen as a show of support for the writers to go on Letterman and refuse to be booked with Leno. It's almost a dead certainty that Letterman would be able to get any presidential candidate that he wanted from either party too. And if Leno's show (and Kimmel's, and O'Brien's) are really bad, the public is likely to turn to the shows that have writers, which would mean a significant boost to the ratings of the two Worldwide Pants series.

On animations writers:
Mark Evanier (again), has a nice piece on the reasons why many animation writers probably want to be in the Writers Guild rather than the Cartoonists Guild. The latter is actually Local 839 of IATSE, the one union which seems to be very conciliatory with AMPTP (which is another way of saying kissing their asses) and very opposed to the Writers Guild. The basic point is that Local 839 has rarely served the best interests of animation writers, who seem doomed to be part of the union because of the way that theatrical cartoons were made in the 1940s, without writers per se but with "story men" who developed gags but also worked as artists. For one thing, Local 839 seems far more aligned with people to punch a clock every day (like animators and assistant animators) than it is for writers who don't necessarly work "at the office." Mark points out a couple of horror stories – like a union business agent who responded to a request for assistance on some issues by saying "I'm too busy to bother with you overpaid whiners." In fact, as Mark points out they weren't overpaid, just paid more than the business rep thought they should be. In fact, thanks to Local 839's "bargaining" abilities the writers had a base pay level that even the cheapest companies in the business in the 1980s (starting with Hanna-Barbera) were ashamed to pay. Mark also offers some true horror stories about trying to move writers from the Cartoonist Guild to the Writers Guild, efforts which ultimately failed, but which saw the business rep spending more time chatting with the studio representatives than he did with the people he was supposed to be representing and was in danger of losing. And while the current business agent for Local 839 is far better than his predecessor, there is still a major fight to get animation writers into their "proper" union.

Videos on iTunes Canada: This isn't a strike story except it kind of is in a peripheral sort of way. Earlier this week the Canadian version of the iTunes Music Store began making TV shows available for purchase. It isn't a big selection right now. For one thing there are only thirteen series available at the moment. For another thing, of those, it seems that only about five are American and they aren't the major network series like Cane or Boston Legal. This has a lot to do with precisely which rights Canadian networks buy when they purchase an American series. Currently Canadians can watch the following (shows marked * are American series airing in Canada:

  • From CBC: Dragons Den (a show about people trying to get money from entrepreneurs for their inventions/business ideas), Little Mosque On The Prairie, The Rick Mercer Report.
  • From CTV: Corner Gas, Instant Star, Degrassi: The Next Generation, Robson Arms.
  • From the Comedy Central (which is owned by CTV): The Sarah Silverman Program*, South Park*, Drawn Together*.
  • From the NHL: Stanley Cup Classics, NHL Games of the Year.
  • From MTV Canada (also owned by CTV): The Hills*.
  • From YTV (or Nickelodeon): Avatar: The Last Air Bender*.

Here's where the peripheral aspect of the strike comes into play. For the most part the contract that the Writers Guild of Canada has managed to get with TV producers in Canada has been inferior even to the deal that WGA writers had before the current strike began. However, as Denis McGrath points out in a piece in his blog Dead Things On A Stick this is one area in which Canadian writers have it better. A statement from the WGC explains where the writers stand on revenues from iTunes: "The flow of revenue for use of these programs is governed by the terms of those licence agreements as well as the WGC collective agreement – the Writers IPA. In addition to other payments under the collective agreement, writers have a royalty formula calculated on Distributors' Gross Revenues when a conventional TV show is delivered over any platform, including online. Digital downloads may be included in an original licence between the independent producer who owns the program and the Canadian broadcaster, for which the broadcaster has paid a licence fee. This licence fee forms part of the writer's royalty formula.... In any case, the digital distribution of made for t.v. programs always results in revenue flowing into the writer's royalty formula." In other words the Canadian writers of the shows available on iTunes get a royalty payment (because they retain authorship) when their shows are downloaded. Also, though it doesn't seem to apply for iTunes yet, animation writers are covered under the WCG contract. This of course is one of the six points that AMPTP demanded that the WGA take off the table when they withdrew from negotiations. Another issue that APMTP was adamant about having removed from negotiations (claiming that it could end up with producers paying out more money than they made from online sales) was the question of using Distributors' Gross Revenues as a basis for payment for online distribution. As you can see, this is something else that the Canadian writers already had. In the terms of handling this area at least, the Canadian contract is ahead of what the union in the US currently has and well ahead of what the Studios and Networks seem willing at present to give them.

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