A Brief History of Television Writers: 1949-1979, Part 2

In the early 1950s, as network TV grew in popularity, stories written for the small screen became more intricate and more important. To gain the recognition they felt they deserved, TV writers began to unionize. It took over a decade and even then, writers had to fight whenever their contract came up for renegotiation.

Part 1 | Part 2 | Part 3 | Part 4

Era of the Writers Guild of America Begins

By mid-May 1955, negotiations between the Writers Guild of America and ABC, CBS and NBC had led to a tentative agreement regarding a contract for freelance writers working in live television [42]. The contract ratified in late May gave increases of up to 30% to writers, depending on length and sponsorship, plus royalties for reuse and left all rights other than television with the author. Additionally, term contracts could only end if a program was cancelled and left the air. In that case, a writer would be given two weeks’ pay [43]. Negotiations for a contract covering filmed television began in early September 1955 but were called off on September 20th to give the network negotiators time to confer with network officials [44; 45]. In early October, members voted to “take strike action or any other steps required to support the guild’s negotiating committee,” and negotiations continued [46].

Although the contract for filmed network programming was still being negotiated in February 1956, the Writers Guild of America ratified a contract with the major film companies producing television programming, one that gave freelance writers higher wages. Members also voted to have the negotiation committee ask the networks for “a new definition of the duties of writers, on which a contract could be based” [47]. A contract between the Writers Guild of America and the Alliance of Television Film Producers, which also covered freelance and staff writers, was signed in April, set to last until January 15th, 1960 [48].

Negotiations with the networks for filmed television continued through May. The Writers Guild of America set June 4th as a deadline for “a satisfactory working agreement” or else the networks would face a strike. The Guild wanted writers for filmed television to have the same protection with the networks as their contracts with the Hollywood studios and the Alliance of Television Film Producers gave [49]. Negotiations resumed on May 24th, with the two major sticking points being “nonexclusivity and separation of rights” [50]. While the negotiations continued, the separate television and radio branches of the Writers Guild of America were joined [51]. On June 4th, the Guild and the networks signed a contract giving the Guild “separation of rights for call writers and non-exclusivity of services.” It was exactly what the Guild wanted. The contract was set to last through January 1st, 1960 [52]. In September, the Guild began courting Desilu Productions, the “last unorganized unit in Hollywood,” mailing ballots to writers at Desilu and applying to the National Labor Relations Board to act as representative for Desilu [53].

A Major Point of Contention

In late September, the Guild confronted Robert L. Lippert, a former movie producer accused of offering over 100 films made after 1948 for use on television. According to the Guild, Lippert Productions had signed an agreement in 1951 promising to pay residuals. By 1956, however, Lippert Productions had dissolved [54]. The action taken against Lippert was one of the first battles in a long war that would soon rage throughout Hollywood and involve most — if not all — of the major union groups. In early November, the Screen Actors Guild, the Screen Directors Guild, and the Writers Guild of America met with the Association of Motion Picture Producers to open talks involving theatrical films produced after August 1st, 1948 for use on television [55]. An earlier accord between the producers and the guilds prohibited studios from releasing films made after 1948 to television without first agreeing upon residual payments. The November meeting was intended to begin the process.

However, by the end of November negotiations had failed to produce a payment formula all sides could agree on. The three guilds began working an individual agreement with a single studio, C & C Super Corporation, which had purchased the R.K.O. film library and wished to release between seventy and eighty films to television [56]. In January 1957, the Screen Writers Branch of the Writers Guild of America, West, voted on whether to strike against Hecht-Hill-Lancaster Companies and Michael Todd Productions, two companies with outstanding legal issues involving scripts written by Guild employees. At the same time, the Guild voted on the issue of C & C Super Corporation’s offer of payment (the Screen Actors Guild and the Screen Directors Guild had already accepted payment) [57]. The strike was authorized and the payment accepted by the end of January [58]. By March, both companies had settled with the Guild and the threat to strike was removed [59].

In May, the Guild decided to pursue payments for “pay,” “toll” or “subscription” television, stating that pay television involved separate rights and separate payments [60]. The fight against Lippert (now called Lippert Pictures, Inc.) continued in July when the Guild filed suit alleging breach of contract [61]. Thus, the Guild was fighting on two fronts: pay television and post-1948 films. (It is important to note that in both cases, television writers were not involved, only screen writers.) In September, with the start of a pay-TV experiment in Bartlesville, Oklahoma, the Guild created a special committee to study the issue. The Guild also reached an agreement with Associated Artists Productions Corporation to allow ten post-1948 films to be shown on television [62]. A proposal that would place films made before and after September 2nd, 1957 into “flat” and “sliding scale” payments was made in October [63].

The Writers Guild joined with the Screen Actors Guild in January 1958 to confront Republic Pictures about releasing 140 post-1948 movies to NBC without paying residuals to either guilds. Both guilds informed Republic that they would cancel their contracts after sixty days (the time frame required by law), although Republic could easily stop the cancellation by coming to an agreement with the guilds [64]. In February, the Writers Guild voted to force a new contract with the studios relating to films shown on pay-TV by canceling its contracts with the studios (which could not legally take place until November). Additionally, the Guild gave strike notice to United Artists for releasing post-1948 films to television (to occur after sixty days) and authorized the strike against Republic Pictures (effective March 22nd) [65].

The Guild also opened negotiations with ABC, CBS and NBC in late February to seek “damages” to Guild members whose script was “changed by a network or sponsor, over his protests, and then panned by the critics” [66]. Additionally, in March the Guild continued its battle against Lippert Pictures, Inc., winning a court order compelling the company to release a list of the post-1948 films its had sold to television and the writers of those films [67]. In April, the Guild took the drastic step of voting to authorize the cancellation of its contracts with the Association of Motion Picture Producers and the Alliance of Television Film Producers (legally applicable May 6th, followed by a six month waiting period before the contracts were actually nullified) [68].

Meanwhile, other Hollywood Guilds were also attempting to negotiation with various producers and studios. The Screen Directors Guild threatened to strike against the Association of Motion Picture Producers over a variety of issues, including pay-TV. The American Federation of Musicians went on strike in February against the Association [69]. In May, the Guild accepted a new two-year contract with ABC, CBS and NBC, one that allowed writers to withdraw scripts if producers attempted to make changes the writer did not agree with [70]. The Guild lost its battle with Lippert Pictures, Inc. in November when a federal court ruled that the independent agency that had negotiated the 1951 agreement with the Guild not to release post-1948 films to television “did not represent Lippert Pictures” [71].

Part 1 | Part 2 | Part 3 | Part 4

Works Cited:
42 Adams, Val. “TV Variety Show Faces Time Cut.” New York Times. 18 May 1955: 63.
43 Pryor, Thomas M. “Hollywood Notes.” New York Times. 29 May 1955: 59.
44 “N.B.C.-TV to Present Serling’s ‘Director’.” New York Times 8 Sep. 1955: 63.
45 “Writers Will Meet On TV Pact Demands.” New York Times. 29 Sep. 1955: 67.
46 “Notes from the Coast.” New York Times. 10 Oct. 1955: 52.
47 “TV Film Authors Gain Rises in Pay.” New York Times. 22 Feb. 1956.
48 Godbout, Oscar. “Jarrico’s Credit Taken From Film.” New York Times. 23 Apr. 1956: 51.
49 “Television Faces Writers Strike.” New York Times. 22 May 1956: 67.
50 Godbout, Oscar. “Talks to Resume on Writers’ Pact.” New York Times. 24 May 1956: 63.
51 Pryor, Thomas M. “Fox to Film Life of Jean Harlow.” New York Times. 4 Jun. 1956: 25.
52 Godbout, Oscar. “TV Writers Agree to Network Pact.” New York Times. 5 Jun. 1956: 71.
53 “Guild to Stress TV Story Rights.” New York Times. 4 Sep. 1956: 59.
54 “Radio-TV Union Opens Pact Talk.” New York Times. 27 Sep. 1956: 70.
55 Pryor, Thomas M. “Parley to Weigh Film Sale to TV.” New York Times. 9 Nov. 1956: 35.
56 “Film Bid to Be Studied.” New York Times. 17 Dec. 1956: 45.
57 Pryor, Thomas M. “Writers To Take Film Strike Vote.” New York Times. 7 Jan. 1957: 30.
58 Pryor, Thomas M. “Screen Writers Authorize Strike.” New York Times. 26 Jan. 1957: 18.
59 Pryor, Thomas M. “Studio Signs Pact to Cover Writers.” New York Times. 7 Mar. 1957: 25.
60 Pryor, Thomas M. “Writers Eye Part of Pay-TV Profits.” New York Times. 7 May 1957: 40.
61 “Accord Reached on TV Recorders.” New York Times. 10 Jul. 1957: 55.
62 Pryor, Thomas M. “Film Writers Map Toll-TV Demands.” New York Times. 27 Sep. 1957: 16.
63 Pryor, Thomas M. “Scenarists Stand on Pay Minimums.” New York Times. 2 Oct. 1957: 29.
64 Pryor, Thomas M. “Film Guilds Warn Republic Studios.” New York Times. 22 Jan. 1958: 22.
65 Pryor, Thomas M. “Film Writers Ask Pay-TV Royalties.” New York Times. 15 Feb. 1958: 14.
66 Adams, Val. “News of TV and Radio.” New York Times. 23 Feb. 1958: X11.
67 Pryor, Thomas M. “FOX Will Screen ‘The Snow Birch’.” New York Times. 7 Mar. 1958: 16.
68 Pryor, Thomas M. “Goetz Lists Films in Columbia Deal.” New York Times. 26 Apr. 1958: 14.
69 Pryor, Thomas M. “Hollywood Faces Directors’ Strike.” New York Times. 27 Apr. 1958: 57.
70 Adams, Val. “News of TV and Radio.” New York Times. 25 May 1958: X13.
71 Pryor, Thomas M. “Actors to Discuss Issue of Tape TV.” New York Times. 29 Oct. 1958: 30.

Originally Published November 5th, 2007
Last Updated April 29th, 2018

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