Monday, March 17, 2008

MASH writers reunion

Pictured L to R: Burt Metcalfe, David Pollock, Tom Reeder (partially hidden), Elias Davis, me, Karen Hall, Mike Farrell, Gary Markowitz, Dan Wilcox, Thad Mumford, Rick Mittleman, John Rappaport, Burt Prelutsky, Larry Balmagia, David Isaacs, Allan Katz, Gene Reynolds.

Thanks to the Writers Guild for organizing a recent MASH writers reunion. It was great to see everyone, I’m honored to be in their company, and I still have notes on all of their drafts.

The purpose of the reunion was that the WGA is trying to get a “Fair Market Value” bill passed through the California legislature (Bill #1765 if you're scoring). Here’s why:

A studio like 20th Century Fox produces a big hit like MASH. Some of the members of the creative staff (in this case Alan Alda and Larry Gelbart) have an ownership piece of the series. 20th offers the show for syndication. There’s a bidding war. They take the best offer – a huge windfall. Alan and Larry share in the largesse. And since residual rates depend on the deal – actors, writers, and directors receive nice royalties. Everyone wins.

But now these studios are all swallowed up by mega conglomerates. And agendas change.

20th becomes the property of News Corp. News Corp. wants to start a cable network (FX). They need programming. MASH would be perfect. So instead of renewing a rich syndication deal, they sell it essentially to themselves for nothing. Now the profit participants get nothing. News Corp. receives all advertising revenue from MASH and uses the show to lure viewers and build their cable network. Ultimately, the cable network will be more profitable to the conglomerate than the syndication sale. Residuals are smaller and the creators get screwed.

That’s what News Corp. did with MASH and X-FILES, and Universal did with WILL & GRACE. In all three cases the profit participants sued and each received a giant settlement. The congloms have done this with other series and have gotten away with it because the cost of litigation is so high.

So the Guild is trying to prevent this practice in the future. And this bill would go a long way towards that end. Over the next couple of months we MASH writers will be going to Sacramento to plead our case to state legislatures. We might even get to see the Governor if we promise to say we didn't hate AROUND THE WORLD IN 80 DAYS.

What does it say when we have to get an actual law passed because “everyone wins” just isn’t good enough for them?

Note: A number of readers have asked how they can help. Bless you. We need people to send letters to state senator Sheila Kuehl in support. I've provided a sample letter in the comments section. Thanks.

Note #2: Next up: A recap of tonight's AMERICAN IDOL. I hope it's all ice skating music night.


Richard Cooper said...

Now, in retrospect, I bet you wished you hadn't spent all those paychecks and residuals on Chinese food and a mortgage, and bought a cable network instead.

Anonymous said...

Thanks for explaining the Fox situation - until now I'd never given a thought to the question of residuals when MASH appears on a Fox-owned network. Don't you and the other writers get any benefit from DVD sales? Or is it insubstantial? (At least on the discs my sister-in-law owns, the laugh track can be turned off - a great advantage as far as I'm concerned.)

Off topic somewhat: My favorite post-1979 MASH episode was the one by John Rappaport where Charles obtains the score of Maurice Ravel's 1931 Concerto for the Left Hand (for piano and orchestra) to show a soldier who'd lost his right arm that he can still play. (As Charles says, or should have said, the concerto was written for pianist Paul Wittgenstein, who'd lost his arm in the Great War.) Don't know whether Rappaport could or would ever do a guest post about the creation of this episode - just thought I'd raise the prospect.

Anonymous said...

"What does it say when we have to get an actual law passed because 'everyone wins' just isn’t good enough for them?"

It says: They don't want EVERYONE winning, only them.

Let's say the show makes $100, and their are 10 profit participants. In Everyone Wins, everyone gets $10.

But in Corporateland, the 9 creative people who atually made the show all get $1, and they have to sue to get that, because "Although made 30 years ago, it isn't in profit yet."

Meanwhile, Greedy Republican Corporate Head who didn't buy the studio until after the shows were all made, and contributed NOTHING to their creation, gets $90. That's how he likes it.

This is why we have unions and lawyers, because the way you get to be a studio head is by being a greedy bastard, who thinks it's UNFAIR for anyone but him to have any money at all.

Of course, after 7 years of Bush-Cheney, no one has any money left, except the Bush-Cheney cronies.

Anything we can do to help, besides just voting the bastards out come November?

Anonymous said...

Oh, and thanks for the cool picture. I'll get out my electron microscope and check everyone out. I've met you and David, and I couldn't pick you out in the picture without you captioning. Worried someone would see the picture and shout out: "HIM! THAT'S THE MONSTER WHO DID IT!"?

Ger Apeldoorn said...

It says that capitalism has grown to a stage where it doesn't work anymore. Instituionalized greed only works when it is hold in check by very clear laws protecting the little man.

Other example: the postage rates. A year ago the UPS scrapped all the surface rates for shipping abroad. Now all rates go up at a constant. So the more you buy, yhe more you pay. In the old days, you could get a discount for larger shipments. I recently payed $120 for shipping somehting that would have cost me $40 under the old system.

In college I learned capitalism works, because supply follows demand. Yet it's been over a year and no new company has turned up to pick up the dropped business. Why - because everybody is run be shareholders and shareholders only want you to go after the big bucks.

Anonymous said...

Dear Ken,
Thank you for explaining the Fair Market Value bill to me so cogently. I can’t tell you how many others have tried to help me understand what’s the deal with this subprime thing and whether we’re in a recession, a depression, a market correction or a digression. But now that I know what's cooking with fair market value, I’m coming in off the ledge.
Don’t worry, be happy,
--Ben Bernanke
--Chairman, Federal Reserve

PS, if you’re still accepting notes… Take my word for it, I’m the last one to protest that size matters. But I gotta go with McEwan about the microscopic nature of your Mashwriters’ reunion image. I’ve got a copy of John Trumbull’s Signers of the Declaration of Independence with more pixels.

A lot of people are under the misimpression that the Trumbull is an oil painting, but the fact is John Hancock (the elected President of the Congress) was the only one there to sign it for the painting-op on July 4 (go ahead, look it up).

The other 55 signers like Jeffereson, the Adams Family, Josiah Bartlett of NH and The West Wing, Cute-as-a-Button Gwinett (Miss Teen S.C), Robert Morris of Pennsylvania and Mercury Morris of the Miami Dolphins didn’t get their names attached to the project until the following day and had to be digitized in.

I took the “painting” to The Antiques Roadshow and some guy in a bowtie said it would have been worth so much more if Trumbull had not attempted to “restore” it.

Mike McCann said...

Glad to read about the FAIR MARKET VALUE bill. For far too long, way too many "media giants" have used clever accounting tricks to deny the talent -- those that created and appeared in their productions -- from reaping the benefits. Hopefully, this will be one strategy in assuring that the artists are taken care of at least half-as-fairly as the bean-counters who will forever be jealous of your talent.

While it doesn't take a brain surgeon or caveman to understand it, this is a key factor in why the networks, syndicators and studios wanted to re-marry. That was then followed by a rush to first own more local stations and then launch more cable (and now digitial boutique) networks to air their own, vintage product.

Anonymous said...

So, the conglomerates buy a studio, obtaining in the process libraries of film and television show, perhaps spending big money to do so.

And now you want congress to pass a law saying they have to pay again to use the property they now own?!

That's insane! It's like saying I owe royalties to some engineer (silicon or audio) somewhere every time I use my iPod. It's the studio's property! They paid for it, they can do whatever they want with it, including keep it in the vault for the next 100 years if you make it too expensive for them to actually use what they already own.

Then everyone loses. You, the viewers, and the studio.

Doktor Frank Doe said...

Seonaid, Good to see you figured out how to work that keyboard after all! I for one am always warmed when the mentally challenged check in with a half-baked, mentally deficient opinion about a fully misunderstood issue. Any of us could explain the hundreds of millions of dollars the studios make in syndication deals and new media ventures which far surpass the original product's contractual intent. But, you can't train a chimp to drive a car, you can't teach a woman to program a VCR and you can't make a dumbass understand simple business. So, I'll just leave it alone and keep my mouth shut.

Anonymous said...

I don't know why I'm still surprised by this kind of corporate greed. Hopefully it's an indication that there's still a tiny bit of my humanity left.

The Minstrel Boy said...

if you get in to see the guvner i recommend you study up so that you can quote from "conan the destroyer."

Anonymous said...

Seems like Viacom did the same thing when they started TV Land, and the first year or two of shows were mostly old CBS, Desilu or Paramount productions already owned by the conglomerate. Like FX, they seem to have steered a little away from the home-owned, home-operated scheme of things, and now are cannily focusing on old movies people can see uncut on a dozen other channels or vapid reality-type TV shows people are trying to avoid by going to TV Land in the first place (because Viacom only has CBS, CW, MTV, VH1 and Spike TV to do reality shows on if they don't take advantage of TVL's availability).

Gail Renard said...

I'm sorry you're having trouble with Fair Market Value and getting your proper share as writers. If it's any help, the Writers' Guild of Great Britain have clauses you might want to investigate and could might be useful. We have rules against "Sweetheart deals" and also "Arms Length deals" which are there to stop what you're describing. We police that sort of trading very carefully at the Guild here. I wish you luck and success in your quest. And also ta for the photo: what a wealth of talent! Which gets me thinking... is there a collective term for writers? How about a "hyperventilation?"

LouOCNY said...

Nice to see (as some said, with a microscope) the creative geniuses behind MASH!

Tom Reeder, it should be known, was the author of one of the most hysterical sitcom episodes ever - the third season BARNEY MILLER classic, "Hash" - to this day, my stepbrother & I will look at each other, go 'mushy mushy', and fall on the floor in hysterics...

(you just KNEW I was going to slip BM in there somewhere...)

Your Humble Correspondent said...

I was watching The Graduate on HDTV Movies and noticed that Mike Farrell played one of the bellboys when Benjamin took Elaine to the hotel. How interesting to see that!

Forgive the non sequitur...but what are blogs for?

rob! said...

i would've been willing to bus tables if only for the opportunity to hang out there and hear the stories.

tho i probably would've forgotten to bring the food, because i woulda been busy with obsessive MASH questions, like:

"Why isn't Margaret in the 'Interview' episode?"

"In that 'Nurses' episode, why do Hawkeye and BJ put the 'quarantined' soldier in Margaret's tent, not the VIP tent?"

"Why did Klinger rate a tent all by himself?"

"If Hawkeye was so hurt Trapper left without leaving him a note, why didn't he just call Trapper and ask him about it?"

"How did Trapper earn enough points to get discharged, yet Chief Surgeon Pierce never did while staying in Korea for 2 more years?"

"Why is Eisenhower the president during the 5th season, yet Truman is president during the 11th?"

...maybe its better i wasn't there.

The Bumble Bee Pendant said...

what kind of blogging mentor are you?

By Ken Levine said...

No, I inspire you to write and take steps to insure you guys won't get screwed when you do make it.

Anonymous said...

Thanks for writing this, Ken. Two questions: Can you provide a link to the text of the Fiar Market bill (Cal 1765)?

Why is it a state bill instead of a federal bill? How does this affect writers who write from outside CA?

I posted about this issue on my Constitution themed group blog (link at my name), and you are welcome to crosspost and write there as you are interested.

Cathy Fielding said...


Is there anything the general public can do do help further the cause?

Allen Lulu said...

Ken, I hope you don't mind, may we reprint this on our blogs? I would like whatever readers I have to read it and I don't know if they will click through.

By Ken Levine said...

I spoke to the Guild and here's what people can do if you're interested. Send a hard copy letter to Senator Sheila Kuehl in Sacramento expressing your support. Here is a sample letter. Jazz it up yourself but this gives you some idea.

Thanks so much.


Letter of Support for SB 1765 – The Fair Market Value Bill

State Senator Sheila Kuehl
Attn: Tam Ma
State Capitol, Room 5108
Sacramento, CA 95814

Dear Senator Kuehl,

I am writing in total support of Senate Bill 1765 – the Fair Market Value bill.

It is not secret that the media companies in the United States have concentrated their control over the airwaves by consolidating and vertically integrating. Whereas two decades ago there were several companies producing content for television and the big screen, today there are only a mere handful.

With this consolidation has come certain affects that the State of California must mitigate. Among them is the ‘self dealing’ which now happens in our industry. Because the large media companies now have density in both broadcast and cable markets, they are able to license television shows to a subsidiary company that is owned by the same parent company. For example, 20th Century Fox may air a show for its first run on the Fox broadcast network. They then may sell the license to the show to the FX cable network. Sometimes, when such self-dealing occurs, the companies do not pay the fair market value price for the content.

Over the last several years several profit participants have sued the studios or the production companies for ‘self dealing’ and for failing to pay the fair market value for the content. Creators and other profit participants from such hit shows as M*A*S*H, Will & Grace, NYPD Blue, The X-Files, among others, have filed suits to recoup money they should have been paid had the studio encouraged a competitive bidding process and secured the best possible deal for the show. These cases take several years and tremendous resources to wage.

For the actors and directors and writers on television shows, we have a stake in the sale price of a show, because the formula used to calculate our residuals for reruns is directly related to the license transfer fee. Residuals are critical to creative talent and help insure that writers, actors, directors and others are compensated for the work they do, and are able to sustain themselves and their families from the rigors of the often unpredictable job market of the entertainment industry. When television shows are sold for less than the fair market value, all of the creative talent are adversely affected.

Furthermore, when the studios practice ‘self dealing,’ the below-the-line crews such as truck drivers, grips, and others are adversely effected. In some cases, members of the below-the-line unions rely on the value of the transfer price to determine contributions to their health and pension funds. With health care costs constantly rising, the health funds desperately need to insure that the fund is compensated fairly.

For all of these reasons, I humbly ask for the California Legislature to support Senate Bill 1765. This bill is necessary to protect the creative talent and the below-the-line crews that work in the entertainment industry.


By Ken Levine said...

Allen L.

Please be my guest and reprint this post. The more who know the better.


Anonymous said...

Hey Ken,
Here's a link to the State Senate Bill 1765. This page will be updated as the bill progresses through the legislative process. Having worked in the Legislature (and now writing for television), I hope this bill does not suffer the fate of similar labor bills... that is, it will have no problem getting through the Legislature -- especially with Sen. Kuehl and Sen. Steinberg's influence -- but will get vetoed by the Governor. So I think any letter writing campaign should help give Kuehl some firepower, but the real test will be when the bill lands on Arnold's desk. Given his silence during the writer's strike, and the fact that this bill may affect his own interests as a producer, it will take a lot of pressure to get Arnold to sign.

Anonymous said...

from the picture, it looks like a fun reunion.. Did they have enough diapers for everyone tho?

Anonymous said...

Thanks for the info and the permission to repost and crosspost. Did so on my group blog -
The F Words: Free Is Not Fair.

It's a free-for-all group blog, officially Consitution-themed, but with all sorts of odds and sods issues and interests represented. Please join in the general disorder, if you are so inclined.

Anonymous said...

I didn't know that Sheila Kuehl was still in office....good! Trivia for those who are unaware....she appeared on The Many Loves of Dobie Gillis and was billed as Sheila James.

Good luck with the bill!

Anonymous said...

I should think even the Terminator would be no match for Zelda Gilroy.

Rob said...

Wow, what a bunch of old farts.... and Ken.

Good luck guys!

Anonymous said...

I do understand the desire to be compensated for the creative efforts that go into writing.

But I don't know where the line should be drawn. I write computer software. What I write is sold by the company that pays me a salary.

I do not get additional compensation each time those works are sold. I traded my rights for a paycheck.

If the software fails to become a revenue stream nobody profits, the company actually loses money. If it goes well the company that paid me wins and I get to keep on working.

I'm not sure I understand why writers should continue to receive payment 30 years down the line.

I'm not saying they shouldn't, I'm just not sure why they should if they received payment up front. How many times does the guy who designed the cup holder get paid by Ford or GM for each new model that uses it?

Of course if it is negotiated upfront, there is a legal reason. And I realize it takes a collective agreement to get those kinds of deals.

I asking about the attitude that it is outright owed to the writer. If I write something on my own, fund it produce it, and sell it, I get the money. Otherwise I just not sure. . .

Rich Shealer

Anonymous said...


Anonymous said...

The previous message was brought to you by the Angry People Unaware of Lower Case Association.

Unknown said...

all the best wishes and good luck for all of you and the other writers in the guild. it's time you all receive your fair share of the big bucks and the networks stop exploiting their creative staff. looks like the strike has taught them nothing.