Writers To Strike Out Star Trek In 2001/2002?

By Christian
January 18, 2001 - 1:11 PM

After fourteen years of having at least one Star Trek series in production, Trek fans are now faced with the possibility that the 2001-2002 television will be the first since the premiere of 'Star Trek: The Next Generation' to feature no new Trek episodes at all. The reason for this is not a lack of profitability of the franchise, or even a conviction by the producers that it might be wise to give the franchise a rest. No, it is the threat of an industry-wide strike by television writers and actors that could mean no new episodes of Star Trek, as well as dozens of other shows, will be available next fall.

On the 1st of May, the current contract of the Writers Guild of America (WGA) will expire, while on the 30th of June the contract of the Screen Actors Guild (SAG) and the American Federation of Television & Radio Artists (AFTRA) runs out. Contract renegotiations have not yet started, but already now it is becoming clear that there is a large rift between what the unions want and what the studios are prepared to offer. Unless both parties find a way to cross this rift before the contracts expire, a prolonged period of strikes seems inevitable.

Most of the issues that the negotiations will focus on are already known. The WGA has issued a set of 42 demands, most of them focusing on the following three issues:

  • Creative Rights - The WGA wants to increase writers' participation in the production of projects by allowing them to sit in on production meetings and actual filming, and by having the writers remain in employment of the studio for the entire duration of filming, so that the writers themselves can make necessary changes to the scripts.
  • Credits - According to the WGA, the possessive 'A Film By' credit of directors should be removed, and in publicity campaigns for films writers should get equal credit to directors and producers.
  • Residuals - Residuals are the share that writers receive of any income that is generated after a film or television show's initial release. The WGA wants to increase residuals for television sales to foreign markets, home video releases, and the three small networks Fox, the WB and UPN.

All of these demands have already been hotly contested, and not just by the studios and producers. The Directors Guild of America has already stated that they strongly oppose any elimination of possessive credits for directors, and they have asked both sides to take the creative rights and credits issues off the table for the coming negotiations.

Meanwhile, the producers, represented by the the Alliance of Motion Picture & Television Producers (AMPTP) fired back early this year by charging that the WGA's demands would ruin the industry. According to the producers, the contract proposals would cost the industry more than $2.2 billion in additional costs over the next three years, which would be more than the 14 major film and TV production companies are expected to make in profits over that period. In addition, the producers pointed to the fact that the demands for higher residuals by the writers don't take the reality of the business into account - revenue from video releases and foreign sales shouldn't be seen as bonus income, as without it most films and TV shows would never break even.

Of course, the WGA immediately responded to the producers' claims, accusing them of "old school" debating tactics. The WGA said that the real cost would be less than a third of that $2.2 billion, and that the increase in residuals would be only fair to writers. When home videos were first launched, the unions agreed that only 20% of those revenues would be taken into account for calculating residuals, in order to help launch the new format. However, now that income from home video releases has far surpassed actual box office income for films, the writers say studios should not be the only ones to reap these substantial benefits anymore.

Despite these disagreements, over the past few weeks there have been a few signs that both parties would be willing to work toward a resolution. After in October rejecting offers by the producers to start early negotiations, at the start of this year the WGA invited producers for a first round of talks, scheduled to being on Monday the 22nd of January. Publicly, both sides have emphasised their willingness to come to an agreement, with representatives of the AMPTP saying they "want to begin in earnest". For the first time in thirty years, negotiations will even take place in WGA headquarters rather than at the offices of the AMPTP, seen by many as a sign that the producers are adopting a positive attitude towards these negotiations.

However, problems continue to exist, even with these negotiations about to start. The WGA reportedly set a deadline of just two weeks for the talks, after which they would probably not return to negotiations until a month before the strike. Another problem is that in early informal talks, producers reportedly not only rejected the demands of the WGA, but also proposed a reduction in residuals for the three main networks. It was exactly such a demand that led to the Screen Actors Guild embarking on its six-month strike against producers of commercials last year.

The Screen Actors Guild, meanwhile, isn't nearly as active in trying to work towards an agreement as the WGA appears to be. In late December, SAG's national executive committee said it would not start early negotiations, and plans are now to start negotiations on the 1st of June, just a month before the expiration of their contract. The demands the SAG will make are likely to be mostly of a financial nature, with residuals being a major issue for the actors as well. This was already a problem during contract negotiations three years ago, and it is believed that hard feelings from those negotiations could complicate matters in this new round of talks. In any case, after its strike against the advertising industry last year, the SAG is well-prepared for another strike this year.

Such a strike, meanwhile, is something that the industry has also been preparing for, as it has been stockpiling material for over a year now. Most television networks have ordered reality shows to replace scripted programming, and have already begun production on new seasons for several of their television shows in order to at least have enough material to last for the first half of next season. One such show for which material will be shot in advance is 'Gene Roddenberry's Andromeda', which will begin filming its second season in March rather than in May. Other examples include NBC preparing extra episodes of 'Law & Order' and two spin-offs of the series, and ABC buying the rights to 13 classic James Bond movies to air in the place of episodic television series.

Though in the short term these measures have benefited writers and actors, as over the past few months there was more work than ever in Hollywood, in the long run many believe they could also have negative consequences. With the availability of a large amount of stockpiled material, there is less pressure on studios to avoid a strike. In addition, some observers have speculated that after the increased costs caused by preparing for a possible strike, an actual strike could be a welcome cost-cutting development for the studios.

It is this view of the possible strikes as a self-fulfilling prophecy that is worrying many industry insiders. During press meetings this past weekend, top production executives at 20th Century Fox, Warner Bros., Touchstone and Columbia TriStar all went on the record as saying they thought there would be a strike, Writers Guild presidents John Wells and Herb Sagent recently released a statement saying that the strike should not be seen as "inevitable". "These talks will begin in what can only be described as a frenzy of industry and media conjecture", they wrote in a letter to guild members. "Many have come to refer to 'the strike' as if there is no doubt our negotiations will fail. We disagree. Writers serving on your board of directors, the council of Writers Guild East, and on our joint negotiating committee share our belief that a strike is not inevitable. A deal can be achieved if the companies are willing to seriously negotiate the issues we have articulated over the past 18 months."

Certainly there are a lot of reasons why it is very important to avoid a strike, and indeed even those executives who believe a strike to be inevitable have said that it will be a very bad thing for the industry. At a time when the economy has already begun to slow down and the ad market has started softening, losing part of the television audience would be a very hard blow for the television networks. On the other side of the fence, writers would be faced with several months without any income, a prospect that has already sparked extensive cost-saving measures. 'Dharma & Greg' creator Chuck Lorre warned his staff to start saving money, telling them that "[this] is not a time to build an extension onto your home," and writers with mortgages to pay have expressed their worries about how a strike would affect them.

These worries are enhanced by the fact that many in the industry still remember the prolonged writers' and actors' strikes in 1988, which started over similar issues. As a result of those strikes, the start of the Fall television season was delayed, the quality of shows went down, and network TV lost 9% of its audience following those strikes. Many writers, without work for months, were forced to leave the industry and find other jobs to sustain themselves.

One of the shows that was hit in 1988 was 'Star Trek: The Next Generation', then just in its second season. Due to the writers' strikes, the producers had to rely on measures such as re-using scripts from the failed 'Star Trek: Phase Two' series, leading to shows such as 'The Child'. Fortunately, the fledgling series was still able to survive, but in all probablity Rick Berman, who oversaw the franchise then as well, would not want such a situation to repeat itself, which is presumably why it was recently announced that Series V will probably not start filming until after the strikes have been resolved.

If Series V production will indeed be delayed this long, it will mean that the soonest we can expect Series V to make it to the air will be January 2002, something with which the new series would actually follow the example of 'Voyager', which also had a mid-season debut. If the strikes last longer than expected, the delay could actually be a full year. Of course, this could actually be a good thing for the series - over the past few years, many have argued that what the franchise really needs is a rest. On the other hand, the delay could also mean that the franchise would lose some valuable production people that have been with Star Trek for a long time, and there is also no guarantee that after a year without Star Trek, viewers will still return to the franchise.

Besides Series V, production of the next Star Trek film has also been pushed back over strike worries, and its expected release date has been pushed back from Thanksgiving 2001 to somewhere in 2002. Though this is undoubtedly a disappointment to most Star Trek fans, if Series V will indeed be delayed until Fall 2002 releasing 'Star Trek X' in 2002 could actually be a good thing for the franchise, as viewer interest will undoubtedly be enhanced by a new Trek movie. But whatever happens, next year will likely be a year in which Star Trek fans will see the release of a lot less new Star Trek material than we've been used to for the past decade - hopefully this will not be a reason for many fans to say the franchise farewell for good.

Even if the Star Trek franchise is able to survive the strikes and the possible delays resulting from that without damage, it still is unlikely that the industry as a whole would not be damaged by the strikes. Hopefully both sides in the conflict will be able to reach some kind of agreement after negotiations begin on Monday, and it will be possible to avoid strikes. Here at TrekToday, we'll keep you updated on how the negotiations proceed as soon as new info on that becomes available.

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