By Hillel Aron
By Joseph Tsidulko
By Patrick Range McDonald
By David Futch
By Hillel Aron
By Dennis Romero
By Jill Stewart
By Dennis Romero
In an upcoming episode of cable channel Nickelodeon’s animated series Invader Zim, the show‘s titular delusional alien sets off an explosion inside a ”time field.“ Thing is, it’s a little explosion; eventually dangerous, yes, but for now expanding verrrry sloooowly. It‘s an apt metaphor for the labor battle that’s been brewing over at Nickelodeon and its cartoon-production arm, Nickelodeon Animation Studios (NAS).
Last April, NAS writers asked the Writers Guild of America west (WGAw) to negotiate a contract on their behalf. Nick has refused to bargain, stalling the union drive in a bureaucratic quagmire. Now the guild is fighting back, and what started as a little slow-motion explosion is getting bigger by the week.
If the guild wins this tilt, it would mark a major change for the animation industry. Writers unions aren‘t entirely absent from animation -- Motion Picture Cartoonists Local 839 has long represented Disney scribes, and the guild itself recently organized animated prime-time broadcast series like The Simpsons and Futurama -- but the majority of cable and daytime animated series remain nonunion. The result is a kind of screenwriting caste system, with animation writers on the bottom: Scribes for Nick’s live-action, guild-covered The Amanda Show receive union benefits plus residual payments that can add up to more than $6,000 for 10 reruns, while Nick‘s animation writers get shorter-lived company benefits and zero residuals.
The guild tried to pull cable and daytime into the fold during last April’s contentious industrywide contract talks, but met with stiff resistance and ultimately dropped the issue. Behind the scenes, though, the union was already cultivating a relationship with dissatisfied NAS writers. Nickelodeon became the testing ground for plan B: organizing animation one studio at a time.
But paying residuals on cartoon reruns might force Nick to rethink its business model, which currently milks maximum profits from endless reruns. WGAw assistant executive director Paul Nawrocki cites Nick‘s animated Hey Arnold! as an example. ”Calendar year 2000? That show ran nine hundred times. And that was less than a hundred episodes, which means every episode ran about 10 times, last year alone . . . And who’s their audience? Well, it‘s a young audience that turns over every two to five years. There’s a new audience every five years. As far as [Nickelodeon‘s] concerned, that’s evergreen product.“
Based on Nick‘s ad rates and an estimated production cost of $500,000 per half-hour, the guild figures every prime-time animated episode generates $14 million in profit over five years. Nickelodeon, which declined interviews with this and other publications regarding current labor woes, says its production costs are proprietary information.
In late April, 19 of the 26 writers staffing six NAS shows -- Hey Arnold!, Constant Payne, Invader Zim, SpongeBob SquarePants, Fairly Odd Parents and Jimmy Neutron: Boy Genius -- signed union cards requesting WGAw representation. Then came the blowup.
Nickelodeon filed an unfair-labor-practice charge with the National Labor Relations Board (NLRB) alleging that Micah Wright -- a Nick writer then developing his own pilot, Constant Payne -- was a supervisor who coerced NAS writers into signing their cards.
The writers and the guild contend that the charge was patently bogus. ”Here I am, running a show that hasn’t even officially been picked up,“ recalls Wright. ”Yet I‘d somehow managed to threaten all of these writers, many of whom have their own shows which have been picked up, and who have more money and power than me? Utterly and totally ridiculous.“
”No one had to coerce me into signing a card,“ says Invader Zim writer Eric Trueheart. ”I signed it because I wanted to.“
Months later, after evacuating Wright from his office, forbidding him to enter the Nick building, reclassifying him as a freelancer and stripping him of company benefits, Nick would voluntarily withdraw the charge. But by then it was clear that the studio’s intent was to let the NLRB election process drag out, which is the last thing the guild wants, because of the lengthy review and appeal period. ”We‘re getting pretty good at speeding things up,“ says Tony Bisceglia, assistant to the NLRB’s regional director, but he recalls one case that dragged on for seven years.
Nick writers can‘t afford to wait. Since April, Hey Arnold! has closed shop. SpongeBob SquarePants follows suit this month. ”You have to understand the nature of the industry,“ says WGAw assistant executive director Cheryl Rhoden. ”Shows will be in production for one or two seasons, and then they’ll wrap . . . So [Nickelodeon‘s] taking advantage of that. If they want to let the NLRB process unfold over a year or more, or two years, all these shows could be gone,“ along with the shows’ writers, and any chance they had at the benefits of a contract.
Nick, in a press statement, says it‘s merely letting labor law take its course -- that in fact it’s the guild ”which has delayed the NLRB process by filing three unfair-labor-practice charges against the company. Two of the three charges have already been thrown out.“ True, though NLRB documents show the investigation of one of those dismissed charges uncovered ”evidence of a probable violation,“ namely, that NAS restricted writers from posting pro-union material on company billboards, at one point removing the boards entirely. The studio avoided punitive actions only by replacing the boards.