Battlestar Galactica showrunner Ronald D. Moore has refused to produce any more Webisodes for NBC Universal, as NBC-U has refused to honor its financial obligation to writers under the contract it has with the Writers Guild of America.
I haven't seeded this even though it is coming out of Newsweek via MSNBC, because this isn't the first skirmish over royalties and accreditation when it comes to the WGA and the major studios, and this particular controversy is not a new one. In fact I wrote about this before joining Newsvine approximately two months ago.
Variety is reporting that NBC Universal, owner of Battlestar Galactica, The Office, and upcoming drama Heros has filed a complaint against the Writers Guild of America for their insistence that writers not participate in duties for the creation of 'webisodes', essentially miniature television shows produced and broadcast solely for the Internet.
The issue has seemingly been escalated, however, with Newsweek reporting that "NBC Universal seized the Webisodes and filed charges of unfair labor practices against the Writers Guild of America."
This battle is over a contract that all the major studios have signed with the Writers Guild called the Minimum Basic Agreement. The MBA is a collectively bargained agreement that stipulates minimum wages for writers doing various tasks, from writing and selling one-off screenplays to day-to-day and week-to-week employment writing on a television shows staff.
The MBA also requires the studios to contribute to a pension and health fund for writers while giving final decisions over writing credits solely to the Guild. The contract is renegotiated every three years, and is set to expire in 2007.
Not only are writers paid upfront fees for their work, they are also typically paid royalties whenever the piece of work, be it film, television or radio is shown. These rates vary depending on the broadcast medium, and a major point of strife between the Guild and the producers group has been the insistence that writers be paid the home-video/VHS rate for DVD sales, which strongly favors the producers.
WGA members have long wanted higher royalty rates for DVD sales, and failed in their most recent push during the previous contract negotiations. It looks to be the number one or number two issue the Guild will be grappling with next year, along with the Guilds attempt to organize reality TV writers, who currently are not covered by the MBA and are not subject to minimum pay rates and limits to hours worked.
With the emergence of video sharing sites such as YouTube, and the studios own attempts to create new teaser content for their shows which they can stream online in the hopes of attracting new audiences, it shouldn't be any surprise that the rate of pay -- or even whether writers should be paid at all -- for the creation of Webisodes figure to be a bigger and bigger issue as time passes.
Made-for-Internet content is not covered specifically in the current agreement, and the studios are arguing that Webisodes are not actually episodes of the various television shows at all, that they are nothing more than teasers. They couldn't call them commercials, since those also are covered by the Guild. As for the WGA's stance, they want at a bare minimum for their writers to be paid at the home video rates, and are looking to negotiate something more fair.
NBC is not the first studio to come under fire from the WGA and writers over the issue, with CSI creator CBS announcing that their Webisode content isn't covered by their contract with the WGA.
CBS is also making itself a target of the WGA with its plans to begin streaming many of its high-profile shows such as CSI online. CBS did not notify any of the guilds of its plans, and claims it has every right not to do so. At question now is whether or not CBS plans to pay residual fees for the episodes, and if it does not, all three of the major guilds, the Writers Guild of America, Screen Actors Guild, and Directors Guild of America are all set to begin contract negotiation within a year of each other.
The ABC network has also had its run-ins with the Guild when it wanted to create Webisodes called the "Lost Video Diaries" for ratings monster Lost, and shut out union writers all together. Working representatives from all three of the major Guilds: SGA, DGA and the WGA threated to withhold support of the project in a show of solidarity, making the project impossible. ABC gave in, and everyone working on the project is now operating under their Guild's respective contractual agreements.
From the Newsweek article:
"It doesn't matter which technology wins out, the companies are going to make money, and we can't get shut out," says David Young, the new executive director of the WGA, West. The stakes are huge: viewers streamed "Battlestar" Webisodes 5.5 million times last month, doubling traffic to SciFi.com within two days of the premiere. By comparison, 2.2 million people showed up for the show's third-season opener on Oct. 6. Talk of a Hollywood strike is growing louder. Some 900 writers, including "Desperate Housewives" creator Marc Cherry, attended a "unity" rally Sept. 20. Says "Galactica's" Moore: "We're all heading toward a collision over digital content. Somebody's going to blink, but I don't think it's going to be the writers."