BOTH SIDES NOW

Harvard alumni face off against each other in writers’ strike

No, your TiVo is not broken. Fans of primetime programming tuning in to the latest episodes of shows like “24,” “The Office,” and “Family Guy” may be alarmed to find that the networks are playing reruns. Insomniacs may just start counting sheep when they discover that the opening monologues of Jay Leno and David Letterman seem dated. And what’s this? Dennis Kucinich is on “The Colbert Report” again?

The lack of fresh material in the world of entertainment is the result of a joint nationwide strike of the Writers Guild or America, East and the Writers Guild of America, West, two organizations who together represent almost all American film and television writers in collective bargaining. The two groups, collectively referred to as the WGA, began the strike on Nov. 5 after refusing an offer from the Alliance of Motion Picture & Television Producers (AMPTP). And in the ensuing division between studio executives and screenwriters, one surprising group has taken their places on both sides of the picket line: Harvard alumni.

A HOUSE DIVIDED

“There are no negotiations going on right now,” Patric Verrone ’81, president of the WGA and a former Winthrop House resident, said last week. “We gave them a package of proposals. They walked off, and it’s up to them to tell us they have a response to those proposals.”

For every writer in the streets with a Harvard degree trying to change the status quo, however, there’s a Harvard alum in a power suit trying to bring order to the chaos. Perhaps the most notable figure in the latter camp is Jeffery A. Zucker ’86, a former Crimson president who became CEO of NBC Universal last February. Additionally, senior vice presidents at ABC, CBS, Fox, and HBO are Harvard alums, as is the CEO of Sony Pictures. Brian A. Grant ’91, vice president of business development at Fox, declined to comment, saying, “As much as I’d like to help your cause, I can’t. We’ve been instructed not to talk to the media from the Fox PR folks.”

Rumors of a joint strike between the Writers Guild of America (WGA) East and West (officially separate organizations that have agreed to negotiate together) took hold in early October. Anticipating the end of their contract at the beginning of November, the guilds agreed to vote on the strike. Nine out of ten writers voted in the affirmative.

On Oct. 26, representatives of the Alliance of Motion Picture & Television Producers (AMPTP) presented the WGA with an offer consisting of, among other things, higher caps for employer contributions to pension and health funds. The WGA turned them down, and on the morning of Nov. 5 writers at NBC studios in New York walked out. The first WGA strike in nearly 20 years is underway in New York and Los Angeles, and Harvard alumni are playing an integral role on both sides of the picket line.

The core issue of the WGA strike is the AMPTP’s attempt to apply the current formula for residuals—payments made to writers each time a show is rebroadcast or sold after its initial showing—to new media. This issue of residuals dates back to the 1980s, with the development of burgeoning VHS technology. “We were told it was experimental material,” says Jeffrey D. Melvoin ’75, a writer and producer, explaining how the networks and studios negotiated contacts with limited residual payments for new media. “We learned a lesson back then because we made a mistake. We did not calculate correctly the impact technology would have.” Today, however, the point of contention between writers and the AMPTP is the profit seen from downloaded and streaming versions of digital content.

“Whenever they develop a new wave of doing business, they try to do it non-union, and try to do it by paying as little as possible to everybody,” says Verrone. “They try to argue that new technologies and new business requires flexibility so that they can compete. They always say, ‘We’ll make it up to you later,’ and they never do. So this time we won’t be fooled again.”

Melvoin points out the difficulties of renegotiation once new technology becomes profitable. “Nobody can predict with certainty the way the future is going. We need to be smart about it and need to hang tough about it. So far the other side has indicated no movement to share the new media, and that’s a problem, since we’re not going to make the same mistake we made.” he says.

Carlton Cuse ’81, member of the WGA Contract Negotiating Committee and executive producer and writer for “Lost,” says, “We just want the residual system to cover new media...It’s about protecting writers in this arena for the future and preserving the legacy of the residual system for future generations of writers.”

Cuse emphasized the shockwaves the strike has in a phone interview last week. “This week has been about the fall out of that bomb, going through the various reactions in the wake of that,” he says. “Now that it’s happened and the reality has settled in, it’s potentially time to resume a dialogue. We are ready and willing to talk at any point in time. We’re waiting for them to join us at the table.”

On Nov. 4, AMPTP President Nick Counter posted on the organization’s official website, “We made an attempt at meeting [the WGA] in a number of their key areas including Internet streaming and jurisdiction in New Media. Ultimately, the guild was unwilling to compromise on most of their major demands. It is unfortunate that they choose to take this irresponsible action.”

The AMPTP could not be reach for comment.

A FUTURE IN QUESTION

Although it may take some time for mainstream American television audiences to feel the effects of the strike, the WGA has already made an impact on the industry. Aspiring screenwriter and television production company assistant James C. Oliver ’06 will be out of a job after Thanksgiving due to strike-related cutbacks.

“This kind of thing is happening all over the place. Assistants are getting fired everywhere,” says Oliver. “There’s this pervading sense of doom around town.”

Micah N. Fitzerman-Blue ’05, another aspiring writer in L.A., echoed Oliver’s sentiments. Fitzerman-Blue recognizes that his youth in the business leaves him time to carve out a place in the industry. But, he adds, “there’s a high likelihood that the rules are going to change. The definition of a writer and the expectations of what a writer will earn in the industry is unclear at the moment.” For him, the repercussions are immediate as well as long term. “I just finished a pilot and now I can’t take that to market. There’s no one who would buy it. [The strike makes it] difficult for me to advance my career.”

The full effects of the strike may not be restricted to screenwriting. Frank L. Washburn ’08, a freelance journalist and aspiring video game story writer, anticipates difficulty due to the strike. “It is probably going to affect my plans over the next five to ten years, how this pans out...in terms of opportunities, pay ranges that I’m looking for, ease of actually finding a job at all.”

PICKET LINES ONLINE

It’s not small change that’s up for grabs, either. “We estimate that WGA members lost $1.5 billion because of the bad formula in residuals,” says Verrone.

Peter Rader ’82-’83, WGA strike captain, is hard at work bringing the picket lines to the Internet out of a deep concern for biased media coverage of the strike. “The multimedia conglomerates that rule Hollywood also happen to control most news media in this country and the story is constantly getting spun in their favor,” he says. “We quickly realized we had to get the story out there in a different way, so we created a virtual picket line.”

This virtual picket line includes a MySpace page, Facebook pages, and multiple YouTube clips. One video, “The Office is Closed,” stars striking writers and actors from “The Office”—including B.J. Novak ’01 Greg Daniels ’85—and has received over 400,000 hits.

“We’re beating them at their own game. The strike is about the Internet, so we’re using the Internet to fight back,” Rader says. “Billions of dollars are being made and writers, directors, actors—everyone involved—is not being paid a penny for this content. We are going to get America to recognize one way or another that the Internet is a democratic space and there needs to be unions to protect those who provide its content.”

But Writers Guild members aren’t the only feeling the repercussions of the strike. David S. Alpert ’97, a partner in Hollywood management-production firm Circle of Confusion and the former president of Harvard-Radcliffe Television, represents various creative forces in Hollywood, ranging from the Wachowski Brothers to the makers of “30 Days of Night.” As a result of the strike, his firm may be forced to dramatically reassess its strategy in the coming months. While in support of the guild’s goals, Alpert is anxious for the strike to resolve itself. “Ultimately I sympathize with the writers, but I want to work, I want to make a living,” Alpert said. “When there’s a work stoppage in the entertainment industry, it affects every aspect of the city’s economy.” Without the influx of new scripts from members of the Writers’ Guild, Alpert says his firm will have to adjust its focus to animation, international co-production and local-language pieces.

SOLIDARITY AND CUPCAKES

Mia E. Riverton ’99, a member of the Screen Actors Guild (SAG) and Alpert’s wife, had similar feelings. “I’m not a WGA member but I certainly support them,” she says. Riverton made cupcakes for picketers on Los Angeles sets in a show of solidarity. The SAG website events list is riddled with picket-related gatherings, and many of Riverton’s fellow SAG members refused to cross picket lines for blacked-out network shows.

The WGA is fully committed, and doesn’t plan to back down. “I think a lot of writers are mentally getting prepared for striking for a long time—months, not weeks,” says Melvoin. “There are no cracks in people’s resolves to get what we need at this point. It’s very early though. Things could get very ugly before there is movement on the other side.”

In March 1988, 9,000 television and screenwriters went on strike. The strike lasted for five months, and it is estimated that networks lost as much as $500 million as a result. With 12,000 writers total and a resolve backed by other unions like the SAG and the Teamsters, economists estimate losses at twice that for a strike of similar length, according to Reuters.

“We’re prepared to strike as long as it takes,” says Verrone. “We don’t want to be on strike, we want to go back to work, but the thing we want less than a strike is a bad deal. I hope it’s not long at all, but because the future is up for grabs, writers are prepared to fight for a long time.”