Speech given by Bill Armstrong, Chair of the Writers’ Guild TV Committee, at the European Writers’ Council’s annual general meeting and conference in Brussels on 2-3 November 2014
Working on spec is part and parcel of a television writer's life. In our own time and at our own expense we research, create and develop ideas and scripts. This has always been the case and always will be. Production companies, for their part, are understandably reluctant to commit financially to an idea at an uncertain stage of its development. But at some point a line is crossed. Beyond this line it is wrong to expect the writer to continue to bear all the risk and all the expense in return for only a proportion of the potential reward. Beyond this line it is unfair and exploitative to expect a writer to carry on working for free.
Over the past few years, this line has shifted dramatically. A Writers’ Guild of Great Britain survey last year found that 87% of UK TV writers had experienced a significant increase in the amount and kinds of work they had been asked to do for free. Long-standing agreements and guidelines are regularly being flouted. Virtually all UK independent production companies and broadcasters have been asking, cajoling or pressuring writers to do more and more work for free. Development departments say they can’t afford to pay for ideas, treatments, development, options on existing scripts or sometimes even rewrites to those scripts. More and more, options aren’t even discussed or writers are offered ‘one-pound’ options, ‘shopping ‘options’ or some variant of a free option. If we are to have a sustainable industry, this has to stop. Free is NOT an Option.
It is extremely worrying how far the dominant narrative on this has shifted and how commonplace and acceptable it has become to expect writers to work for free. At a public meeting, a senior BBC executive recently dismissed the Guild’s concerns about ‘free’ options on the grounds that, “No one becomes a writer to make money.” Like so many he insisted that indies have no money for development. He said people working in development departments aren’t paid for development either, adding parenthetically, “Apart from their salaries.”
It is ironic that the heads of our broadcasting companies should hold such views. Of late there has been much debate about the lack of cultural diversity on our screens. Initiatives – invariably unpaid – are rolled out but seldom make much difference. The elephant in the room, predictably, is never addressed. If so much of a writer’s work has to be done for free, the only people who can afford to enter the business or remain in it are those who have an unlimited overdraft facility from the bank of mum and dad. And those people are most likely to be white and middle-class. If we carry on the way we are going, we will soon find ourselves in the situation where the only voices we hear and the only stories that get told are those of the independently wealthy.
It may well be that indies do not budget for development – but not because they lack the money. The truly independent production company is an anachronism. Danny Cohen, director of BBC TV, recently described the consolidation in the production industry as ‘a gold rush’. Whether intentional or not, the allusion to the Wild West, with the connotations of lawlessness it entails, is apt. Resources are increasingly concentrated in large, well-capitalised and institutionally exploitative conglomerates. If those conglomerates squeeze their subsidiaries to the point where they cannot properly fund the development work on which their existence depends, the answer is to put pressure on them to do so. The answer is not to claw back the shortfall by squeezing writers further. There is only so much pressure you can put on people before you crush them. If the companies that ultimately run our television industry don’t budget for development, it’s not because they can’t afford it. It’s because they know they can get away with it.
The obvious answer to this exploitation is for writers to ‘just say no’. However, the pressures on new writers and even those with considerable experience are enormous and growing. Production companies and broadcasters make it brutally clear that working for free is the only way to be considered for a commission or a place on an existing show. And writers are isolated and highly vulnerable to pressure. Less than half of UK TV writers belong to their union.
The Writers’ Guild of Great Britain is working with its most experienced members to compile guidelines on what a writer should and shouldn’t do for free. In the long run, devaluing their own work does a writer no favours, and hurts all writers in the process. The Guild is also drawing up a 10-point negotiation primer – how to say no and talk about money without risking the gig.
The Guild’s guidelines will reflect the broadcasting world we live in but also protect the writers’ fundamental right to be paid fairly. The Guild will take these guidelines to broadcasters and indies and start to build a consensus.
It is crucial that every attempt is made to educate those within our industry and in the wider public as to what is involved in the writing process. Too many people, even those most involved with writers, lack any true understanding of the writing process or the time and effort it takes. It is easy to say, “Just give us a page of A4.” Reducing the complexity of an entire series to a few paragraphs involves considerably more than simply typing out 500 words.
The hardest work that writers do, they do for free. Having invested their own time, energy and money in the construction of the blueprints, they must be paid to build the house. Re-writing the narrative on this will not be easy. The forces ranged against the writer are powerful and will take some convincing. But writers may have more leverage than they imagine. The powers that be in UK TV are desperate for content. Without the writers’ voices, without the stories they write, they have nothing. And they know it.
The Writers’ Guild of Great Britain and Shadow Minister for Culture, Media and Sport, Helen Goodman MP, have written to ITV Chief Executive Adam Crozier urging the broadcaster to bring an end to a four-year contract dispute in the United States.
The Writers’ Guild of Great Britain’s sister union, the Writers Guild of America (WGAE), has been trying to negotiate an agreement with ITV Studios America since 2010.
The dispute took a new turn last week (3 November 2014) when WGAE warned that the planned American remake of Ant & Dec’s Saturday Night Takeaway, starring upcoming Oscars host Neil Patrick Harris, would be affected if an agreement was not made.
Members of WGAE can only work on shows covered by Guild agreements, and WGAE warned that it would take industrial action. Lowell Peterson, WGAE Executive Director, took to Twitter, declaring, “Time for ITV to sign”.
Bernie Corbett, General Secretary of the Writers’ Guild of Great Britain, has responded by writing to ITV Chief Executive Adam Crozier stressing that the Guild is “growing increasingly concerned” about the dispute.
“We cannot understand why ITV in New York has adopted such a hawkish, anti-union position,” he said.
“It is completely at odds with the way the industry works in the United States, it is damaging to the reputation of ITV, not only in the US but increasingly in the UK as well, and it looks as though it may damage the ambitions of ITV to become a major player in the US.”
He added that there were fears the “reverberations” could affect Writers’ Guild members in the UK.
Shadow Minister for Culture, Media and Sport, Helen Goodman MP, has also written to Adam Crozier.
“I am sure you agree that workers should be afforded at least basic rights and protections, therefore I hope you will encourage your colleagues in America to work with the WGAE,” she wrote.
“I am concerned that for a long time ITV failed to engage with the guild and that more recent talks to form a contract have been unsuccessful. It is therefore in everyone’s interests that negotiations are resumed and a satisfactory resolution reached as soon as possible.”
The BBC detective show Sherlock, Britain’s most watched drama series in a decade, has picked up three BAFTA Cymru awards, presented at the Wales Millennium Centre in Cardiff on 26 October 2014.
The TV drama series was co-created by Writers’ Guild member and award-winning screenwriter Steven Moffat, alongside Mark Gatiss, for Hartswood Films. Moffat has also written selected episodes.
The adaptation of Sir Arthur Conan Doyle’s detective stories, starring Benedict Cumberbatch as Sherlock Holmes and Martin Freeman as Doctor Watson, is filmed mainly in Cardiff. Its three series have received critical acclaim, and 12 million people tuned in to watch series three in January 2014 to find out the mystery of the lead character’s apparent death after falling from a rooftop.
Viewers were teased by a special BBC trailer (see the video, above), which suggested Sherlock was in fact alive and well, while Steven Moffat said at the time: “It’s time to reveal the truth about what happened between him and the pavement.”
A Christmas special and fourth series are planned for 2015/16.
Sherlock won the Best Television Drama BAFTA Cymru award; while Arwel Jones won the award for Best Production Design on the series, and Claire Pritchard won an award for Best Hair and Makeup.
To All Writers & Writers’ Agents
29 September 2014
The BBC is today announcing that the EastEnders omnibus will cease from April 2015. This decision has been taken after much consideration and detailed analysis of the audience research.
As the television landscape has changed dramatically over the past few years and the way in which viewers watch programmes has evolved – with the advent of PVRs and the wide availability of BBC iPlayer on computers, tablets, connected TV etc. – the majority of viewers now catch-up with EastEnders in alternative ways (indeed EastEnders is consistently the most-viewed series on BBC iPlayer) and the audience for the EastEnders omnibus has steadily decreased.
With the anticipated introduction of 30 day catch-up on BBC iPlayer in the near future, as well as BBC One + 1, there will be even more opportunities for viewers to watch episodes they’ve missed.
EastEnders remains at the heart of the BBC One schedule and continues to be one of the most popular programmes on British television. The BBC is absolutely committed to the future of EastEnders as illustrated by the huge investment its making in the Elstree site and the re-building of the EastEnders Lot, which is due to start next year.
In recognition of the fact that the loss of the omnibus would have had a significant impact on what the actors and writers are paid, we have come up with an alternative approach to the structuring of talent pay to ensure that talent continues to be rewarded fairly.
Going forward current script rates will be maintained and writers will move from a script fee plus narrative repeat fee (totalling 175%) to a script fee for one transmission plus advance against future public service use (valued at 175%). The advance against future public service use will cover any future repeats of the programme on terrestrial or digital channels should they be commissioned. Script fees won’t cover BBC iPlayer – this will continue to be paid via Writers Digital Payment as it is now.
Our aim is to ensure that no writer unfairly loses out due to the loss of the omnibus.
If you have any queries please let me know or contact Michelle Matharu in the Literary Copyright team.
With very best wishes,
Executive Producer, EastEnders
Your old programmes could live again as downloads -- and you get paid
In the next few days the BBC will launch an unprecedented campaign to persuade writers to sign up to the digital future. Supported by the Writers’ Guild, the BBC will send letters to nearly 11,000 writers, writers’ successors, and writers’ estates – asking them to sign up to modern contractual terms.
The operation goes right back to the origins of the BBC in the 1920s and 1930s. From then right up to 2002, when radical new contracts were introduced, people who wrote for BBC drama and comedy did so under a confusing variety of terms, and for much of that period, all rights expired after 20 years.
That was when broadcasting was thought to be ephemeral, and tapes of classic programmes were routinely and unthinkingly wiped – to be re-used for sometimes much less worthy material.
Most old programmes never get repeated on network channels, but that doesn’t mean no one wants to watch them. Digital technology, such as the iPlayer and the forthcoming BBC Store, will make that material available once again. In some cases it will be free to view, as a public service, and in others it will be available to buy – the 21st-century version of the VHS tape or the DVD.
In order to make this switch, the BBC needs to be comfortable that it has the rights to draw material from its archives and make it available. After years of negotiation, the Writers’ Guild has agreed with the BBC that there should be a major exercise to gather these rights together – and in return, the BBC has agreed to new ways of paying writers – or their successors or estates. Basically, this means that writers will be rewarded in the same way as if they had written their scripts only a year or so ago.
If you have ever written a drama or comedy script for the BBC, you should soon receive a letter and a new contract for you to sign. In almost every case, the Writers’ Guild recommends that you should agree – that way your old (and sometimes long-lost) work can be revived and made available online.It is also worth remembering that you can withhold some of your works from the system if you wish, and that if you sign up you can later change your mind.
IMPORTANT: In a small number of cases, where there have been many repeats on network television, it will be smarter not to sign the new terms. But mostly, these new contracts will put old material back into availability, and generate some income for the writer as well.
For more information please visit this website. www.bbc.co.uk/writerslicence
We are currently updating the guidelines for writers working in animation (including puppetry). The guidelines are a useful resource for writers and we are working to ensure that the guidance we provide is accurate and up to date.
To ensure that we are publishing accurate pay ranges we need your help, we have constructed a small survey to establish what rates are being paid nationally and internationally for writing animation, for example, a bible, 5 min script etc.
If you are a professional writer who writes animation, please spare us 5 minutes of your time and complete the Animation Survey
The Writers’ Guild and the BBC have reached agreement on a “loyalty bonus scheme” to ensure that writers on Doctors and other popular long-running series do not suffer swingeing pay cuts later this year.
The problem arose because a former 15% additional payment for iPlayer use and repeats on BBC3 and BBC4 has been ended in favour of generally better arrangements. Under a transitional arrangement, the payment was extended until July this year for Doctors, Casualty and Holby City, but will then disappear.
Guild general secretary Bernie Corbett explains the dilemma: “The trouble with ‘transitional’ arrangements is that they come to an end, and meanwhile it became clear that Doctors writers in particular are unlikely to benefit significantly either from the iPlayer or higher repeat fees on secondary channels.”
The Guild responded by organising a meeting of members and non-members from Doctors and arranged for a writer from the series to address the BBC negotiating forum. Email forums sounded the opinions of those who couldn’t attend and a united position was established. The BBC responded with an offer of new money through a “multi-episode bonus scheme” (MEBS).
It means that any writer who is commissioned to provide at least three episodes over a year will receive a 15% bonus payment on every script delivered in that year.
The Guild and its negotiating partner, the Personal Managers’ Association, pressed for further improvements, but the BBC rejected those suggestions.
Nevertheless, according to Corbett, the new scheme is “a positive development, and a life-saver for some writers whose earnings could have fallen off a cliff. We will monitor this carefully in its first year and will continue to press for a general uplift in the pay of LRS writers, particularly on Doctors, which looks to us like the lowest-paid continuing drama on UK network television.”
The BBC unilaterally offered to extend the scheme to Casualty and Holby City, which was welcomed by the Guild, although as those shows produce fewer episodes each year, a smaller number of writers will benefit. MEBS money is in addition to the Writers Digital Payments money from the use of iPlayer that will soon be coming on stream, and does not buy any further rights – it is a straight bonus.
In a separate development, writers on the Welsh language soap Pobol y Cwm found themselves facing a substantial cut in earnings due to the cancellation of the Sunday omnibus and a cut from five to four episodes per week. As all Pobol y Cwm writers are Guild members, they were able to organise a strong and rapid response. The BBC has offered the Guild significant increases in episode fees and other improvements, and the offer is currently being considered by writers in Wales.
Corbett commented: “We are still in negotiations, but it is already clear that what would have been a huge blow to writers’ earnings will be substantially softened due to the united action of the writers on a 100% union show.”
The collective efforts of the Guild and the Doctors and Pobol y Cwm writers in confronting the BBC with a united front and a coherent, well-argued case have been crucial. Guild Television Committee chair Bill Armstrong says: “There is no reason that this should not work for other shows. The Guild continues its efforts to contact writers who aren’t members, identify their interests and help them to come together, organise and argue their case for better terms and conditions. We welcome any information – from members and non-members – that helps us help you.”
Writers, actors and crews are campaigning against swingeing cuts to Pobol y Cwm, the soap produced by BBC Wales in Cardiff and screened on the Welsh-language channel S4C.
In a surprise move the BBC and S4C announced that the show would be cut from five to four episodes a week, would take an annual two-week holiday, and would have its omnibus edition scrapped.
The broadcasters blamed a 36% cut in S4C’s funding – a loss of £40 million over four years, which has already led to staff redundancies. They also cited a “change in viewing habits”, and scheduling changes following S4C’s loss of a contract to televise rugby matches.
Following an angry meeting attended by Pobol workers, at which executives sought to explain the changes, the unions representing them have organised talks with the BBC and S4C. The Writers’ Guild will be in talks in Cardiff on 31 March.
Guild general secretary Bernie Corbett said the combined cuts would result in 60 fewer episodes a year. “This has impacts on all areas – on writers, performers and crew, as well as the whole status of the Welsh language. We will meet with the BBC and S4C, and we will express our concerns and ask them to reconsider their decisions.”
Corbett also said the cuts were the result of the BBC licence-fee settlement agreed between the BBC and the government in 2010, which saw the BBC take responsibility for funding S4C: “Pobol y Cwm is the victim of the ridiculous decision to make the BBC fund S4C, which we were very much against at the time. This has proved us right, as we said at the time it would be the start of a slippery slope for Welsh-language broadcasting.”
In a more positive development, S4C has suggested that it would like to screen more varied drama – when the channel opened there were two new drama nights a week.
The Writers’ Guild deplores the latest cuts announced by the BBC and the impact they could have on writers’ livelihoods.
There has been a double-whammy this week with the announcement that BBC3 is to move online and that the long-established Welsh soap Pobol y Cwm is to suffer a big reduction in the number of episodes commissioned and the scrapping of the weekly omnibus edition .
All these developments could have a devastating effect on writers’ earnings.
Guild negotiators and committee members will be in key meetings with the BBC in London and Cardiff over the next few days to establish the facts about the cuts and to discuss the impact on writers.
Writers’ Guild general secretary Bernie Corbett said: 'This is the fallout from the terrible deal former BBC director-general Mark Thompson made with the incoming coalition government in 2010, to freeze licence fees for six years. Of course he is now an ocean away and doesn’t have to deal with the consequences of his crazy secret pact with the coalition.
'We welcome the new D-G’s statement that he will abandon "salami-slicing" cuts that only deliver equality of misery on all parts of the BBC. Instead, bold and difficult cuts will be made. But the end of BBC3 is a shock to the system. We will be meeting BBC executives over the next few days and weeks, and we will try to ensure that the pledge to reinvest £30 million of savings in BBC1 and BBC2 drama actually comes about.'
Guild negotiators will be meeting BBC Wales in the next few days to discuss the implications of the drastic cuts to Pobol y Cwm.
Writers owed £250,000 for series screened in Europe
The Writers’ Guild has accused two European broadcasters of 'effectively rewarding criminal behaviour' after they screened a major children’s TV drama series for which the writers are still owed £250,000.
The writers, who are all Guild members, claim the move sets a 'bizarre precedent' that could have wider ramifications for creatives across the entertainment industry.
The five UK-based writers of the 26-part series Which is Witch (dubbed into French and broadcast under the title Sorcières Mais Pas Trop!) say producer Phil Ox, of company I Love Television, owes them £250,000 collectively, despite the fact the scripts were completed around a year ago and the series is now being broadcast in France and Belgium.
The writers have spent the last year requesting the money owed to them, and had hoped broadcasters Radio Television Belge Francophone (RTBF) in Belgium and Canal J in France would agree not to broadcast the series until they had been paid for their work. The writers believe they were duped into signing contracts based on Ox’s promises that all the finance for the series was in place.
However, both broadcasters have started showing the drama, with the writers claiming this sets an unwelcome precedent that could see other TV channels follow the broadcasters’ example.
The Writers’ Guild has made a formal protest to both broadcasters, but despite this the drama is still being screened. Requests for the broadcasters’ assistance in obtaining payment from the producer have also been ignored. The broadcasters claim that the producer has supplied them with all the necessary paperwork to enable them to have the legal right to broadcast the show, regarding the situation as a dispute among 'suppliers' and not their concern.
The Guild’s lawyer said: 'Both broadcasters are content to exploit the writers work in full knowledge that they have not been paid while washing their hands of any responsibility. From the writers’ point of view it is little better than theft'.
Minimum fees for BBC TV writers are going up by 2% with effect from 1 November 2013, bringing the flagship rate for a one-hour teleplay to £11,040 – the second increase this year. The new rate for series/serials is £10,020 per hour.
Children’s drama and comedy, and any scripts under 15 minutes, will be commissioned at a minimum of £184 per minute, with online-only commissions at £92 for teleplays and £84 for series/serials. The minimum for television sketch material is £103 per minute, or £83 for children’s sketch material.
Guild general secretary Bernie Corbett said: “This is another example of the Guild’s determination that even at a time of large BBC cuts, writers should not get left behind. These increases are fairly close to the latest inflation figure of 2.2% and compare with a pay rise of 1% or £800 for BBC staff.”
A full list of all new minimum rates is available to download. These rates are negotiated under three separate collective agreements by the BBC, Writers’ Guild and Personal Managers’ Association (representing writers’ agents). They were last increased by 1% on 1 January 2013, and will next be revised with effect from 1 November 2014.
Lend your support to the new campaign from the Writers' Guild
'We really like your loaf of bread but we haven't got any money to pay for it.'
If that doesn't work in Sainsbury's why should it work with writers' ideas?
The past few years have seen a disturbing increase in the amount of work that writers are being asked and expected to do for free. While this has long been a problem with small, new or simply unscrupulous companies, it is fast becoming the industry standard even for large, well-resourced production companies dealing with established writers with significant credits to their name.
More and more, writers are being offered ‘shopping options’, asked to do ‘sweepstake pitching’, bake-offs’, free rewrites and ‘pre-writes’ – all for no money. It is becoming the norm to ask even established writers to write a trial script before they are even considered as a writer on a long running show – in some cases when they have previously written for that very same show.
The unpaid commitment now routinely expected of a writer constitutes weeks of work and time consuming, expensive research. If it is unacceptable to ask other professionals to work for free then it is unacceptable to expect writers to work for nothing. How are writers to feed their children and pay the mortgage?
The Writers’ Guild of Great Britain is launching a campaign ‘Free Is NOT An Option’ to address the problem of writers being expected to work for free. The campaign will highlight the scale of the problem and challenge production companies and broadcasters to address indefensible practices that are in no one’s best interests.
To give statistical weight to the campaign two online surveys have been published, ‘Free Is NOT An Option’ and ‘Free Trials’. The findings of the surveys will be confidential and anonymous and only used as statistical evidence in publicity campaigns and negotiations with major production companies and broadcasters. The surveys are open to all writers (whether Guild members or not) and can be accessed via the following links.
Free is NOT an Option https://www.surveymonkey.com/s/X8L8F2R
Free Trials https://www.surveymonkey.com/s/XL8H6KP
Closing date of survey 1st January 2014.
Christopher Reason on how his family's experience of mental health problems have shaped his life and his writing. The article is based on a speech he gave to the 'Time to Change' Mental Health Conference at the Royal Medical Society.
I've been invited to share my experiences of 'writing about mental health'. But as soon as I started to think about this, I realised that virtually everything I write is about mental health. That's because my work is almost always character centred. Whether it's soap opera – I've been on the EastEnders writing team on and off for nearly 20 years – or any of the adventure stories, political thrillers, comedies, domestic dramas that I've written, I always begin with the character. The reason for which will become plain.
So how do I create a character? My starting off point is: 'We're all nutters but some of us are nuttier than others'. For there's a continuum that stretches from relative mental health (I'm not sure if I've ever met the person who was entirely sane) right through to psychosis, and all of us dwell somewhere on that continuum. Nor is it a static point we occupy. One day we might be feeling fine, then something happens – a bereavement, a separation, an illness - and we find ourselves struggling to cope. How we handle or mishandle this crisis is what teachers of creative writing like to call a character's journey or their arc. A leading character's arc is often congruent with the plot – in many cases it is the plot – so understanding the psychopathology that underlies a person's character has always been crucial to me. Other writers, and I'm not knocking them, take a completely different approach. They think of the big concept – Independence Day or Avatar say - and only then create the characters that will fit into it. One approach is not better than the other, they're just different.
So why do I take this character driven, psychology centred approach? That's entirely bound up in my own personal history.