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How the Hollywood Unions Affect the Audience

We've heard a lot about the Writers Strike of 2008 over the past few months, and with the exceptions of being forced into watching more repeat shows than usual, noticing some celebrities have found new ways to be in the front lines of press coverage, and trying to conquer our fears the usual awards ceremonies will or will not go on as usual, the fact the strike is about over has little to no effect in our daily lives. Or so we think. This is a little complicated to explain, and I certainly am no expert, so my explanation is probably going to be extremely over-simplified, but hopefully can produce a little enlightenment.

The Principal Players:

Alliance of Motion Picture and Television Producers (AMPTP) represents film production companies and studios, motion picture and television producers (including broadcast, cable, and independents)

Associated Actors and Artistes of America (4As) is the primary association of trade unions for performing artists in the US, individually representing about 6 different divisions of talent, two of which are:

  • Screen Actors Guild (SAG) represents film and television principal performers and background performers
  • American Federation of Television and Radio Artists (AFTRA) represents actors in radio and television, as well as radio and television announcers and newspersons, singers and recording artists (both royalty artists and background singers), promo and voice-over announcers and other performers in commercials, stunt persons and specialty acts
The Writers Guild of America, East (WGAE) and the Writers Guild of America, West (WGAW) represent film, television, and radio writers

The Story:

The idea of unionizing Hollywood started back during the Great Depression of the 1930s, and it was actually a very good thing, since back then the studios were notorious for using and abusing its crews in the extreme. It's an interesting historical study actually, which about 75 years later has caused all this chaos, particularly when everybody starts throwing around all these freakin acronyms.

The AMPTP is who everyone is negotiating contracts with, currently the WGAE and the WGAW, with a potential threat from the SAG and the AFTRA, who are affiliate unions of the 4As. Now SAG and AFTRA are kind of like siblings and have in the past negotiated together, but now it appears there might possibly be a split, particularly since AFTRA is talking about splitting altogether from the 4As and directly associate with the AFL-CIO, the godfather of all unions.

Translated, that means that every once in awhile, Suits who represent the studios and producers get together with the Suits representing a variety of other people who make the industry happen, and they eventually come to an agreement over things like salary, benefits, working conditions, royalties, copyright matters, etc.

In recent history, there was a strike in 1980 when cable was just being born, and current contracts didn't cover that type of “paid television” expansion. The result was a pay increase, as well as a piece of the cable pie. Another strike in 2000 involved commercial ads, again upping the pay percentages.

For the past 15 years or so, as we all know, there has arisen this giant in the industry called the New Media. It started back in the 90s just with the rampage of the Internet, which lead to the Telecommunications Act of 1996, which basically opened Pandora's Box to having all these multiple choices we have today in digital communication, initially with the concept of downloading movies and music to our computers, to DVD recording, to what currently amazes me as to which of a gazillion companies we want to give our money to in order to be able to watch television on our telephones and surf the net while driving our car. Just like back in 1980s when people like Ted Turner were raking in the big bucks on cable, other industry people are starting to want a bigger piece of the digital pie.

The Writers strike has also been about their lack of a cut of the reality show pie, previously believed the concept was “live” therefore not needing a written script, and animations, previously operating under guidelines initially set by Disney decades ago. Current news says this strike has been successfully negotiated and should be over by February 11.

Now, the SAG and AFTRA contracts with AMPTP end this summer, and both of those organizations are closely watching the Writers outcome, because they plan to rise up and get an equal, if not better, cut of the same pie. And here's where it gets even more complicated, because previously SAG and AFTRA have had a lot of strength in the past negotiating together, but they're beginning to bicker as siblings often do, and if one splits to negotiate on its own, there could potentially be a little power surge that inevitably will muck things up even more. This strike, should there be one, would be sometime in July.

Now what that means to us, the audience, goes like this. January is generally the time Hollywood is starting to set up the very early stages of its fall television line-up. July is when all the cast and crew folks start showing up on the sets to start taping the shows for their September/October premieres. If their unions are on strike, nobody's going to show up, and the new fall television will just be another continuation of the summer rerun season. Films generally take 6-8 months (sometimes a lot more) from first day on the set to opening day at the movies, so technically speaking, if their unions go on strike in July, filming will either stop or be delayed start, and all those flashy films we always get over the winter holidays just aren't going to happen. All this will naturally affect subsequent Emmy, Oscar, and multiple other award presentations in 2009, because there won't have been any competition. Yet when THAT strike is over, everybody in the industry is going to be scrambling to be the first on the scene with the first of what they think we, the audience, wants, which is good, but more than likely we're going be finding prices for those things they make us think we want going up even higher.

Their biggest bargaining chip is us, because they know we'll pay it.


7 Feb 2008 

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