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.

It‘s hard to argue that Nick can’t afford a union. Last year, the channel earned corporate owner Viacom $887 million in ad revenue alone, more than any cable channel except ESPN.

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.

The guild seems surprised to find itself in this morass. ”I think we knew we had a fight on our hands,“ says Paul Nawrocki. ”But I don‘t think the intensity of the resistance they were gonna put up we were quite prepared for. Partly because of our success in prime time.“

But prime-time animation contracts were negotiated with broadcast networks like Fox, where the guild had some leverage — pro-union writers the broadcasters couldn’t afford to lose. This is not, says Nawrocki, the case at MTV Networks — Nickelodeon‘s immediate parent in the Viacom family tree. At MTV, ”there’s this vision of creative talent, whether it‘s onscreen talent, or musicians or writers or actors or whatever, as being this fungible, expendable property.“

An L.A. Times profile of MTV Networks chairman Tom Freston bears out Nawrocki’s opinion. ”For us, a long-term contract for our personalities is one year,“ Freston says, explaining the secret of the net‘s success. In the same paragraph, Freston is said to be ”unruffled“ by news that Johnny Knoxville, star of MTV’s hit Jackass, might leave the show after only a season. ”People start with us and then move on. It just gets faster.“

Faced with that attitude, Nawrocki says, the guild ”is forced to take a more aggressive posture,“ as it ramps up a campaign to bring Nick to the bargaining table voluntarily. On October 3 the union staged its own unofficial election outside Nick‘s colorful Burbank offices, under the watchful eye of state Assemblyman Paul Koretz, chair of the Assembly’s Labor and Employment Committee. The guild won, 19-2. Nick wrote it off as a minor publicity stunt.

The guild‘s second volley, which came November 15 in the form of an ad campaign in the show-biz trades, was less easily dismissed. The ads take to task both Nick and its merchandise licensee, Jakks of Malibu, for neglecting to sign certain existing manufacturing codes of conduct that prohibit the use of child labor. With the family-targeted Jimmy Neutron film set to hit theaters this Friday — and loads of Neutron merch already in toy stores — Nick can ill afford any association with kiddy sweatshops; the company fired off an angry press statement calling the ads ”an outrageous attack . . . The licensees targeted by the WGAw have agreed to codes of conduct consistent with those [mentioned by the guild].“

Indeed, Jakks and other Nick merchandisers have assured the guild that they cleave to the same merchandising codes as Disney. Interesting, considering Disney just last week paid out $1 million in back wages after a probe revealed one of the studios’ merchandising subcontractors hired underage employees and paid less than minimum wage.

The guild is considering expanding the ad campaign to national magazines. And there‘s more to come, particularly if the issue isn’t settled when the WGA contract expires in 2004. Addressing the guild‘s Animation Writers Caucus two months ago, WGAw secretary-treasurer and Futurama writer Patrick Verrone said, ”During last April’s talks, covering animation under the guild contract ranked 18th on our list of demands. Now it‘s probably in the top three.“

”It’s gonna be on the table,“ agrees Nawrocki. ”One way or the other, the industry‘s gonna have to deal with us and this issue. We’re not going away, and it ain‘t going away.“

In other words, the stage is already set for another season of saber rattling and strike drums — not the citywide destruction which climaxes that episode of Zim, maybe, but still one hell of a big bang.

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