Wednesday, February 13, 2008

The Triumphant Return of Short Takes – February 13, 2008

For all intents and purposes the WGA strike is over, so at last I'll have news to report that isn't strike related. But not this time.

Contract details: The actual terms of the contract are available online. Jonathon Handelman for The Huffington Post has a summation and evaluation of what it all means that's really quite interesting and points out wins and losses for the Guild. Here are some of the more interesting points:

  • Jurisdiction on New Media: The Guild agreement will be in place for derivative New Media material – for example online material for shows seen on traditional media. For material produced exclusively for New Media Guild jurisdiction comes in once one of a number of budgetary ceilings are met ($15,000 per minute, $300,000 per program or $500,000 per series order). These seem high but are in line with what the Directors Guild of America agreed to. Compensation for derivative New Media is relatively low but more than they've been getting – in many cases that would be nothing. The high thresholds for New Media exclusive material combined with having the compensation for that be negotiable is a bigger problem.
  • Residuals on New Media: If New Media productions are used on Traditional Media then residuals for television programs apply. New Media exclusive programs that run more than 13 weeks (for ad-supported streaming) or 26 weeks (user-paid downloading, for example iTunes), residuals will be paid.
  • Residuals for New Media reuse of TV series and movies paid based on a percentage of Distributor's Gross rather than Producer's Gross – this is a very good thing since Distributors' Gross is higher than Producers' Gross and less subject to the sort of creative accounting that Hollywood is infamous for. This applies to Electronic Sell-Through (things like iTunes) and ad supported streaming. Here's where it becomes tricky. Compensation for ad supported streaming of TV is based on 26-week periods. In the first and second year of the contract the rate is fixed and would pay between $1300 and $1400 per year. In the third year of the contract the writers would be paid 2% of the Distributor's Gross, but the Distributor's Gross is capped at $40,000 for hour-long shows and $20,000 for half-hour shows per 26 week period, meaning that the maximum that writers can earn per episode is $1600 per year. Equally problematic is an initial window of 24 days for first season show, reduced to 17 days for other shows, in which residuals won't be paid. This is of course the period of greatest viewership of ad supported streaming material.
  • Limited "Most Favoured Nation Status": If the Screen Actors Guild gets a better deal than what was negotiated with the Writers Guild in specific areas, the Writers will get that deal. Two things make this problematic. First the specific areas are the New Media provisions of the contract – if SAG improves its provisions on DVD residuals, which they will be focussing on, the writers don't benefit from that. Second, this was a handshake agreement and not written down.

On the whole it doesn't seem to be a terrible deal, and it does seem to mark a step back by AMPTP in some areas, particularly Distributor's Gross. There is a school of thought that says that a good labour deal is one in which no one is particularly happy. In that case this is probably a good deal. I just wonder if some of the provisions – the high ceilings on new media to grant WGA jurisdiction, the long initial window on ad supported streaming, and the cap on the amount of Distributor's Gross, will make this a better deal for the Producers than the writers. I'm also left to wonder if the Writers will be willing to "go to the mattresses" (a wonderful phrase from writer Mario Puzo in The Godfather) again in three years to improve on this deal. Time alone will tell.

Backdoor cancellations and renewals:
Michael Ausiello has produced a mostly comprehensive list of shows and when we'll be seeing new episodes, if ever. Now I don't vouch for the complete accuracy of Ausiello's list simply because I don't know if the networks – which of course have final say on everything related to the renewal of shows – have come up with it, but there is some interesting stuff here. The list of shows can basically be split into four groups: shows where new episodes will be shot for this season; shows which won't have new episodes until next fall; shows whose status is "to be determined" which I assume means that they'll either make new episodes for this season or hold it over till next fall; and shows described as "No new episodes expected. Ever." That's cancellation to you and me. In addition to Ausiello's list I've added some more shows from other sources So here is the status of the shows as I write this (apparently this literally changes hour to hour for the TBD shows and presumably shows he doesn't have listed):

  • New episodes for this season:
    30 Rock, Back To You, Big Bang Theory, Boston Legal, Brothers & Sisters, Cold Case, Criminal Minds, CSI, CSI: Miami, CSI New York, Desperate Housewives, ER, The Game, Ghost Whisperer, Gossip Girl, Grey's Anatomy, House, How I Met Your Mother, Law & Order, Law & Order: Criminal Intent, Law & Order: Special Victims Unit,
    Lost, Medium, Moonlight, My Name Is Earl, NCIS, Numb3rs, The Office, One Tree Hill, Reaper, Rules Of Engagement, Samantha Who?, Saturday Night Live, Shark, Smallville, Supernatural, Two And A Half Men, Ugly Betty, Without A Trace.
  • No new episode until the Fall:
    24 (January 2009 actually), Aliens In America, Chuck, Dirty Sexy Money, Everybody Hates Chris (they shot the complete season before the strike), Heroes, Life, Men In Trees, New Adventures Of Old Christine, Pushing Daisies.
  • To Be Determined:
    Bones (unclear whether additional episodes will be produced for this season), Cane (No new episodes this season, future beyond this season TBD), Friday Night Lights (no new episodes this season, future beyond this season TBD), Las Vegas (Ausiello says no new episodes for this season but the San Jose Mercury-News says "Has probably rolled the dice for the last time.", October Road (future beyond the existing pre-strike episodes uncertain), Prison Break (future beyond the existing pre-strike episodes uncertain), Private Practice (Slim chance that it could return with 4 or 5 new episodes this season but will be back in the Fall for sure), Scrubs ("Four pre-strike episodes remain. Four additional episodes will likely be shot; unclear whether they'll air on NBC or go straight to DVD"), Terminator: The Sarah Connor Chronicles (future beyond the existing pre-strike episodes uncertain), The Unit (No new episodes this season, future beyond this season TBD), Women's Murder Club (no new episodes this season, future beyond this season TBD).
  • No new episodes expected. Ever. (aka cancelled): Big Shots, Bionic Woman, Carpoolers, Cavemen, Girlfriends (No additional episodes expected, although a special one-hour series finale is being discussed – this was planned),
    Journeyman, K-Ville, Life Is Wild.

No huge surprises on the cancelled list, well perhaps with the exception of Journeyman. Life Is Wild was a good family show of the sort that people like the PTC say the public is clamouring for to counteract all the sex and violence on TV but the ratings weren't just in the toilet, they were swirling after being flushed. It was rare when the show managed a million viewers. Me, I blame The CW's programmers for putting it up against everyone else's family friendly programs, like Extreme Makeover: Home Edition, The Amazing Race, and Sunday Night Football.

According to MediaWeek, "Viewers can expect to see ABC bring back new episodes of its highest-rated, veteran scripted shows this spring, but not its three, already renewed freshman Wednesday night shows that won't be back until the fall, or its average-rated series for which a decision has yet been made for next season." The article adds, "Boding well for the return of the fence-sitting scripted shows on ABC [Men in Trees, Boston Legal, October Road, Women's Murder Club, Cashmere Mafia, Eli Stone] and the other broadcast networks, however, is that it is questionable about how many new scripted shows can be developed and ready for the fall, unless the official start of the season is delayed. This may result in front-end 13 episode orders for some series that normally might not have strong enough ratings to return."

NBC wants to change the TV world: The rest of this post is going to be about NBC, a network that has spent the strike period aggravating my colon, and with a colon like mine aggravation is the last thing I want. It would be nice to say that what has been aggravating me has all spewed from the mouth of Jeff Zucker, and to be fair a lot of it has. First off, back in late January Jeff Zucker announced that NBC wasn't going to do upfronts for the 2008-09 season. According to Zucker they wouldn't hold the big announcement event at Radio City, but would use the time "sell the inventory." According to an article in Variety Zucker told The Financial Times, "Things like that are all vestiges of an era that's gone by and won't return." He also stated in another interview with Reuters that, "When people say the upfront, there are two things: One is the dog-and-pony show at Radio City and the second is the way we sell the inventory. The way that we sell the inventory in an upfront selling period is not going to change. Whether we still need to do the dog-and-pony show is completely under review here and you can look for an announcement on that from us very soon." In his Financial Times interview he made this broad statement: "I think there were a tremendous number of inefficiencies in Hollywood and it often takes a seismic event to change them, and I think that's what's happened here," adding that "the development process will change forever."

The next day Zucker announced that NBC would no longer make pilots for new shows. Well to be exact he said there'd be one or two new shows a year that might have a pilot made for them but for the most part shows would be selected in some other manner. Of course he didn't make it clear how the new shows would be picked. Speaking to the New York Times Zucker stated offered a couple of reasons; NBC's own financial status (Zucker: "Sometimes you see the world from a different perspective when you're flat on your back. At NBC Entertainment we've been flat on our backs for the last few years.") and the developing U.S. recession. One point that Zucker made that is very valid is that pilots often have nothing to do with the program that will actually be seen. The money is going into the pilots rather than the shows themselves. In the past couple of years we've seen this with shows like Studio 60 On The Sunset Strip and this year with Bionic Woman which had a stunning pilot which the show didn't live up to. But what replaces the pilot process as a means of selecting what new shows will air? Do you submit story summaries and sample scripts? Do you shoot some sample scenes? And how do you sell shows to advertisers when you don't actually have something real (or on a reel) to show them?

Finally, at the NATPE meeting at the end of January, Zucker stated in a speech that "Broadcasters can no longer spend hundreds of millions of dollars every year on pilots that don't see the light of day or on upfront presentations or on deals that don't pay off. And we can't ignore international opportunities, VOD (video-on-demand) or the Web." He added, "It's not about making less programs; it's about making less waste." The model he looks towards, in a way, is reality shows. According to the Reuters article, "NBC will order fewer pilots and start ordering more projects straight to series – 'those that our executives really believe in' – similar to the model for reality shows," although this apparently does not mean that NBC will be out of the scripted program business. It may mean an end – at NBC at least to the traditional September to May programming season, as NBC moves to a year round schedule. The Reuters article stated that Zucker, "admitted that the Peacock will be 'on its own' doing this at first but said its success would be followed by other networks."

Frankly I cringe more than a little when I read things like this coming from Jeff Zucker. Many of NBC's woes are in fact a result of decisions made by Jeff Zucker. If NBC has in fact "been flat on our backs for the last few years," then Zucker can see the person responsible when he looks in his mirror every day. Zucker's decision making process has seen the network throwing money at successful high profile programs (Friends, Frasier) while not developing solid new shows that would eventually take the place of the high profile shows, so that when Friends eventually ended there wasn't an established show to take its place, there was Joey, a show based on the rather dubious premises that people wanted to see one of the characters from a successful ensemble show without the rest of the ensemble.

According to Reuters, Zucker pointed out that "NBC Universal's cable network USA ordered five pilots during the past two years, four of which made it to series and two of which became the top-rated new cable shows of 2006 (Psych) and 2007 (Burn Notice). Yet none of the new scripted series that have debuted on the broadcast networks so far this season can be considered successful, and only two in the previous season – NBC's Heroes and ABC's Brother & Sisters – were hits." The problem is that he doesn't offer any explanation as to why those cable shows were hits or why the company chose the shows it did to have pilots made. The answer would seem to be based on who is selecting the shows to be made into series at USA, but it could just as easily be the nature of cable programming which tends to have shorter runs but a fixed number of episode because cable programming doesn't seem to be as ratings dependent, or be overseen by executives ready to pull the plug at the first sign of a weak rating.

So when Zucker says something like, "things like that are all vestiges of an era that's gone by and won't return," (referring to the upfronts) he would seem to lack a degree of credibility since he in part is one of the people responsible for making the process the way it is. And when Zucker says this: "This system has been around for 20, 30, 40 years and needs to evolve. We're willing to make chances and learn from our mistakes as we go," you have to wonder whether – based on his track record – he's being a genius or a bum. He may be right in that the whole system could probably use an overhaul to make it less costly and more efficient and effective. The real question is whether what Zucker is proposing is the right direction to take whether it is too much of a revolution and not enough of an evolution.

Silverman not hopeful about Friday Night Lights: Or it may be that he just doesn't like Friday Night Lights no matter what he says. Asked about the show by Radaronline he first told the interviewer to watch 30 Rock because it, and not Friday Night Lights was the best show on television. When the interviewer pressed him on it, Silverman said this: "I love it. You love it. Unfortunately, no one watches it. That's the thing with shows. People have to watch them. We're NBC, we have a reputation to uphold. And, man, with this writers' strike ... well, we'll see what we can do. But start watching 30 Rock." Silverman is right at least in part (and no, it's not the part about 30 Rock being the best show on TV). Ratings for Friday Night Lights have been less than spectacular. Part of that can be blamed on putting the show on Friday nights when high school football fans are off watching high school football or other high school sports. And, as I've said enough times about Arrested Development the networks are businesses and can't keep shows on the air that don't draw an audience. Still there is something about his attitude, embodied both by his demand that we "start watching 30 Rock," and by his statement that "we're NBC, we have a reputation to uphold," that makes me really uncomfortable about this guy and his motives. Currently, when you speak of NBC's "reputation" what you're really speaking about is a string of low ratings finishes as a network and an inability to find audiences for many of its shows. Before that – and I suppose I really mean before Jeff Zucker started his reign as head of entertainment programming which led to bigger and better things (for him anyway) – well that part really doesn't matter. I suspect that part of the problem is that Friday Night Lights is a legacy of the previous Kevin Reilly regime at the network, a show which Silverman wouldn't have put on the air in the first place and if he had had his choice would never have renewed for a second season. 30 Rock is another legacy of the Reilly era, but the difference is that

I am not entirely convinced by the way that renewing the series for the second season was a good idea, but that attitude is prejudiced by what I know about the second season and most importantly about the impact the strike has had on the show. If the series had ended at the end of the first season we, the viewers, would have at least had a sense of completion – the Panthers had won the State Championship, Matt and Julie were dating, Riggins's relationships were a mess, Tami was pregnant, Eric had his dream job, and so on. If the series is cancelled at the end of this season, given NBC's statement that they will not be making more episodes this season despite the end of the Writers strike, we are robbed of this sense of closure.

Dumb lawsuit Hollywood style: This one comes from Nikki Finke's Deadline Hollywood Daily. It was initially reported that NBC would be suing the Writers Guild of America over the cancellation of the Golden Globe Awards Show which was to air on NBC but this has subsequently been amended when it was discovered that Jeff Zucker told the Hollywood Foreign Press Association and Dick Clark Productions that the network would not be joining in their legal action. NBC cancelled the show when it became clear that the WGA would picket any event and that the Screen Actors Guild would honour the WGA picket lines. Initially the HFPA and Dick Clark Productions considered suing NBC over the cancellation but then opted to sue the WGA and asked NBC if they would be interested in joining the suit. There does seem to be a question of exactly when he said no – NBC says it was when they were initially approached but other sources say that it actually occurred after Frinke's initial report which included a bit of rather scathing editorializing about Zucker ("I say that if this happens then the WGA should countersue the NBC Universal midget for impersonating a mogul (and the HFPA for impersonating a legitimate news organization)."). No matter who is initiating the suit, it has to be one of the dumbest things ever. Dick Clark Productions was an organization that was legally being struck by the Writers Guild and even an event as traditionally loosely structured as the Golden Globes requires writers. The cancellation of this event and the threatened cancellation of the Academy Awards are the two vital pieces of leverage that brought AMPTP to the bargaining table. I'm not a lawyer but this suit sounds like it doesn't have a leg to stand on. Then again, given the state of the legal system in the United States, who knows.

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