Writers Ink Deal; Actors Begin Talks


The Writers Guild of America and the Alliance of Motion Picture and Television Producers reached terms on a new contract May 4 that includes provisions to improve the fortunes of those who pen cable's hottest shows.

Under the pact — approved by the union's executive board and up for a full vote on June 4 — writers would receive greater compensation for material currently in studio archives that might someday be sold to video-on-demand providers.

Those writers will receive 1.2 percent of the exhibitors' fee for any archived material released in 1971 or thereafter.

Top compensation for made-for-pay TV series, which stood at approximately $300,000 for such series as The Sopranos
or Soul Food, now stands at $4 million per year. For basic-cable series such as Any Day Now, writers will receive an increase of 20 percent, or $850,000.

Executives at cable networks said the changes would affect the Hollywood studios that produce the shows — such as Columbia Pictures Televison, Viacom Inc. or Spelling Entertainment, the primary producers for Lifetime Television — and not the programmers themselves. Cable networks are also moving away from paying the guild's contractual minimum.

"We seek A-plus writers for our shows," said Lifetime Television executive vice president for entertainment Dawn Tarnofsky-Ostroff. Top writers on Lifetime shows receive fees comparable to their broadcast counterparts, she said.

A Home Box Office spokesman said the pay TV channel was glad the strike was settled, but declined further comment.

WGA negotiators initially sought an 11-percent increase in compensation for broadcast shows that are later licensed to cable, such as ER. They also hoped to win residuals each time a show is reprised on cable. The writers dropped that demand, though, and the compensation will remain at 2 percent.

Writers who work on shows for the Fox broadcast network won big in the negotiations. Because of Fox's former status as a "weblet," writers were paid fees 11.6 percent less than those paid to scribes on ABC, CBS or NBC shows. Their compensation will now reach parity with the "Big 3" over the next two years.

Overall, the writers negotiated a deal worth an estimated $41 million over the next three years.

Cable-network executives said talks on the writers' agreement set no troubling precedents that might carry over into the next set of negotiations. Talks between the producers, the Screen Actors Guild and the American Federation of Television and Radio Artists are set to start May 15.

A key topic of conversation in those talks will be "rebalancing residuals," or getting actors a larger share of foreign and basic-cable revenue.

The actors are also concerned about media consolidation and will seek protection from what they term "transfer-pricing abuses" — that is, the selling off-broadcast or non-theatrical screenings of content to affiliated companies at beneficial rates.