Life in Hollywood, below-the-line

Life in Hollywood, below-the-line
Work gloves at the end of the 2006/2007 television season (photo by Richard Blair)

Sunday, April 25, 2010

Bad Moon Rising

"I see the bad moon rising, I see trouble on the way."

Creedence Clearwater Revival

The frenzied rugby-scrum of pilot season is now winding down, with only a few remaining to be shot. If you’re not currently on a pilot or scheduled to start in the next few days, it’s over. By mid-May, the “up-fronts” will take place in New York, where each network will trot out its new fall lineup for the advertisers like a whorehouse madam presenting her “girls” to a room of horny, half-drunk customers. Along with the returning shows will be those pilots that survived the harsh winnowing process -- the golden kernels of wheat left after the chaff (pilots that didn’t get picked up) has been shoveled into the garbage and hauled away with yesterday’s trash.

Dead ahead lies the off-season, when the studios will have very little going on. Back when broadcast networks ruled the earth, this fallow period stretched from May until mid-July, at which point sound stages would again echo with the shriek of power tools rending wood as the sets went up. To a certain extent, the Great Wheel still rolls with these ancient rhythms, but the rise of cable has altered the equation. Cable networks came up with the 12 episode season rather than the network standard of 22, and over the years evolved a multi-season schedule to keep a steady stream of fresh material in the pipeline all year around. As one show winds up its run, another prepares to debut, always bringing something new to their viewers. With the more imaginative cable outfits (FX and AMC) eating the broadcast network’s creative lunch the past few years, this appears to be a winning strategy.*

For those of us who do the heavy lifting, this is a good news/bad news situation. As the broadcast networks falter and cut back production, cable grinds out lots of new shows that keep people working. That’s good. The bad part is that cable shows can pay their crews at the have-we-got-a-deal-for-you "cable rate" -- roughly five bucks (or more) per hour under union scale. Worse, cable doesn't have to pay double-time until the crew has worked 14 full hours in a day, excluding the lunch break. (Standard scale -- paid on broadcast network shows -- pays double-time after 12 hours worked.) Absent the threat of having to pay double-time, many producers will work a crew right into the ground, which is just what happens on many cable shows. If you start the week with a 6:00 a.m. call on Monday, your day probably won’t end until 9:00 p.m. – and the next four days will be just as bad. By Friday, you’ll be in the very special hell of “Fraterday” – wrapping up sometime Saturday morning.

Not all cable shows are so abusive – I’m told the “Dexter” crew works 65 hour weeks with 13 hour days, and are now paid last year’s scale, or one dollar/hour under full scale – but for those less fortunate (the hapless crew of "Greek," for example), working harder and longer for less money is an ugly way to live.

Should the networks continue to stumble, the cable model may eventually become the new normal for Television. One factor driving this are the escalating requirements for staying covered by the health plan under the most recent IA contract. By the summer of 2011, each union member will have to log 400 worked every six months to retain coverage -- up from the current 300 hours. This won't pose a problem for those on the core crew of a show, but day-players will face a much harder time accruing those 800 hours per year. It only takes a couple of rough years to run through your bank of hours and end up out in the cold. If you're not working enough to maintain the health plan, you probably won't be able to afford the high cost of COBRA coverage either. Caught between this rock and a hard place –- the Scylla and Charybdis of modern Hollywood -- many people will have no choice but to work cable shows just to get enough hours for the health plan.

To say "that sucks" is a gross understatement.

But this could be just the beginning of a black tide about to engulf Hollywood. A harbinger might be what ABC/Disney -- a once-proud broadcast network now in bed with The Evil Empire of the Rat -- pulled with "Greek," first airing the show on their cable affiliates before the broadcast network debut. This allowed them to pay the crew the odious cable rate even though the show also runs on the big network. Leave it to the tools of Satan at Disney to come up with such a devious scheme.

Bad as that is, consider this: what if the next step is debuting pilots or first episodes as webisodes on the Internet? Not only would this further entrench the habit of web-based television viewing, but it might allow soulless fiends like Disney to pay the crew under the "New Media" provisions of the contract -- and that would be a disaster for everybody working in television below-the-line. The New Media provisions enforce no minimum hourly or daily scale. Workers accrue hours toward their health and pension plans, but could end up toiling for State or Federal minimum wage.

Who would take such low paying jobs? I’ve already heard of several union juicers desperate for health plan hours who worked on New Media productions paying ten dollars an hour. Working at Home Depot pays a better wage than that, and they don't make you work a fourteen hour shift.

You do have to wear that orange apron, though.

Although it’s too soon to tell what will come of all this, the signs aren’t encouraging. With dark clouds looming over Hollywood, "Will work for health care" might sound like a bad joke, but it could become reality.

I see trouble on the way.

* The only decent drama any of the major networks have come up with in the past few years was “Southland,” but Jeff Zucker and NBC were too stupid to understand what they had – which is how the best cop show on TV since “The Wire” ended up on TNT.


Desterado said...

What exactly is union scale?

I ask because this means nothing to me if I don't know what it is. Is a Grip job on union scale 15/hr? 20/hr?

Michael Taylor said...

Desterado --

I can't speak for other IA jurisdictions, but full union scale here in Hollywood for rigging juicers and set lighting techs is $33.50/hr. Grips get a similar amount, but I don't know the exact number.

I'm told the IA rates are different in other parts of the country, but don't have any hard figures.

Out here, cable rate is $28-and-change/hr for day-playing juicers, while some shows are getting away with paying their core crew $26-something/hr, using a distinction between daily and weekly hires. With the 14 hour rule, you lose another full hour's pay getting 1.5X instead of 2X while suffering through those additional two hours.

I've got a rate card with the exact hourly figures around here somewhere but can't find it at the moment -- still, cable rate is a burn any way you look at it. For example -- when I first started doing sit-coms in 1998, full scale was around $25/hr. Twelve years later, core-crew juicers are getting one dollar/hour more on cable rate. Adjusted for inflation, that works out so something around $18/hr in 1998 dollars -- so the pay cut is right down to the bone.

As for the New Media rate, there is none -- it's all negotiable, with state or federal minimum wage as the floor. This does not bode well for any of us working below-the-line as the Industry lurches towards content distribution on the Internet.