By unanimous vote of its governing council, the Writers Guild of America/EAST (WGA) has placed Sesame Workshop on its strike list in a dispute over new projects created for both traditional television and the big screen.
WGA’s strike is partial and affects only those works created by Sesame Workshop (the former Children’s Television Workshop) for theatrical and television release.
While Sesame Workshop is a signatory to the Guild’s Minimum Basic Agreement (MBA) for the bulk of its traditional work for PBS, its two key areas of growth—traditional television and big screen releases — have been developed since the producer signed the mainstream contract with the guild.
During this strike, Guild writers may still work for Sesame Workshop provided they are working on:
• original programming for public broadcast stations • original programming for pay television and basic cable
• script writing for “Sesame Street”
• original programming for videodiscs and videocassettes
WGA has been negotiating Sesame Workshop’s adherence to the MBA for all projects, but while the producer is allegedly doing more and more traditional television and big-screen work, union sources say the producer has refused to sign the MBA and instead seems inclined to pick and choose when to pay union scale and when not to.
The Guild cited one recent example, Sesame Workshop’s “Cinderelmo” which was produced for Fox Television but not under union jurisdiction. WGA member Tony Geiss, the written voice of the character Elmo, allegedly found himself working on the show without being aware that the “Elmo” project differed from any of the other union work he has done for Sesame Workshop.
A call to Sesame Workshop was not returned by press time, but it is speculated that the producer may be strategizing in anticipation of next year’s MBA talks: For now, Sesame is bound by the 1988 MBA, if only for traditional projects, such as those produced for PBS. For newer projects, the producer may see some advantage in not signing the old MBA just months ahead of another agreement. In fact, should there be a strike, the nonprofit producer might hope to rely on Sesame’s special status, slipping under the radar while larger for-profit producers battle with the union.
For its part the WGA is establishing a profile, clearly tidying up, if not gearing up for world class negotiations and possible labor action next year.
Speculation notwithstanding, the Guild is mindful that Time/Warner or Disney or any of its other MBA signatories could cite the fact that Sesame is producing work outside the MBA and demand similar treatment. Thus, WGA seeks scale wages and benefits from Sesame Workshop across the board. A guild spokesperson says the WGA has been going back and forth with Sesame Workshop for more than two years on this issue.
There are special common areas of interest between WGA and Sesame, including animation. Last month, WGA members launched an Animation Writers caucus aimed at bringing animation writing under union jurisdiction.
As reported earlier, the writers’ belief is that the "amount of time, effort, skill and craftsmanship that goes into writing for animation is just as much (and sometimes more) that writing for live action." The writers signed a joint letter to all WGAE members requesting that they join the new caucus.
The caucus members seek "live action" rates in pay, residual payments, writing credits, pension and health contributions as well as equitable separation of rights when working on animation projects.
Sesame Workshop is keen to produce more animation, union sources say, and they are well aware that “animation is going to be on the table next year.”
In the effort to impose union standards on animation work, the WGAE has proposed hosting events, panels and seminars to keep members abreast of developments and to allow writers to strategize collectively.
In general terms, WGA is clearly optimistic about next year’s MBA negotiations but is also preparing for the possibility of a strike. Sources say the guild is ready for real negotiations and expects to make reasonable and fair proposals while expecting that the producers will do the same. “There will be some hard bargaining,” a source told Playbill On-Line, “but in the end we will come to a deal.”
Still, there can always be surprises, as seen during the historic commercial strike by the Screen Actors Guild and the American Federation of Television and Radio Artists this year. While WGA members continue to do a great deal of work for Sesame Workshop under the MBA, the guild says its requests to get television and theatrical work done under contract have been “repeatedly denied.”
WGA executive director Mona Mangan told her spokesperson she was “shocked” that Sesame Workshop had refused to sign the MBA for all television and theatrical work.
-- By Murdoch McBride