This week, we’ve seen two main issues trending in the industry news: unions and sexual abuse. The MSNBC newsroom has voted to unionize with the Writers Guild of America, East. The U.K.’s TV industry has established a charter to support freelance workers. Time’s Up is self reflecting after its issues were revealed in the press. And finally, Alamo Drafthouse’s Tim League has spoken up on allegations of the company’s racism and sexism. These and other news stories of the week.
The MSNBC newsroom has voted to unionize with the Writers Guild of America, East -- The Hollywood Reporter announced.
According to a National Labor Relations Board tally, 141 editorial staffers voted to have the union represent their unit in collective bargaining and 58 voted against it. The NLRB counted the votes on Tuesday after MSNBC chose not to voluntarily recognize the union in June.
Composed of 300 members, the covered group includes writers, producers, booking producers, fact-checkers, and planners on MSNBC programs and Peacock’s The Choice. In a statement announcing unionization back in June, the group wrote that they wanted to join the Guild to promote greater diversity in the newsroom, fair pay, strong benefits, career development opportunities, and “because we want to make sure workers have a say in what a post-COVID-19 workplace looks like.”
“Victory! This victory is the first of its kind in cable news and we are so proud of what we’ve all accomplished together,” the MSNBC Organizing Committee said in a statement. “A big thank you to our fellow union members in the Writers Guild, across media, and the entire labor movement. We are also deeply appreciative of our MSNBC coworkers, hosts, regular contributors, and the elected officials who supported us along the way. We now look forward to constructive, good faith negotiations with MSNBC management to make this an even better place to work — with input from all of us. This is who we are.”
In a memo sent to the network on Tuesday about the vote, MSNBC president Rashida Jones said she was grateful to have held the election, “which gave everyone affected by this process the opportunity to have their voice heard.” She added, “I know there were people who were supportive of the union efforts, and others who did not want to be represented by the union. As we all move forward, we’re committed to working together as one unified organization where we’ll continue to respect, support and collaborate with one another, and foster a culture that makes us all proud.”
In July, over 1,000 members of the WGA East and West — including director Adam McKay, stars Tina Fey and Amber Ruffin, and writers Neil Gaiman and Cord Jefferson — signed a petition in support of the unionization effort. “We work in scripted television and film, including many projects produced by NBC Universal. Through our union membership we have been able to negotiate fair compensation, excellent benefits, and basic fairness at work — all of which are enshrined in our union contract,” the petition read. “We are ready to support you in your effort to do the same. We’re all in this together.”
The MSNBC unit will join a significant number of digital media, cable, and broadcast journalists represented by the Guild. Companies with WGA East contracts include CBS News, VICE, Vox Media, Hearst Magazines, Gizmodo Media Group, Bustle Digital Group, and MTV News.
Key players of the British TV industry have also come together to address significant issues that were highlighted by the COVID-19 pandemic. According to The Hollywood Reporter, a new landmark document--The Freelance Charter--was unveiled at the Edinburgh TV Festival. It aims to improve the work life of freelancers and address current practices and culture across the industry.
Born from the working group Coalition for Change, which was founded by TV freelancer and founder of the TV Mindset organization Adeel Amini, the charter marks the first time in the sector’s history where people from the industry have come together to address its work practices and formally pledge to improve conditions. A “living” document, with Coalition members committed to annual reviews (two in the first year), it offers industry-wide guidance on issues such as recruitment and development, workplace culture, bullying, harassment, commissioner conduct, and training opportunities, with detailed sections on each.
Signatories of the charter thus far include Amazon Prime Video, the BBC, Sky Content, Channel 4, ViacomCBS/Channel 5, BAFTA, the British Film Institute, UKTV, ScreenSkills, The Film & TV Charity, and Women in Film and TV.
“The Freelance Charter is a result of a huge collective effort across the industry to tackle some of the issues faced by our freelance workforce, and it’s encouraging that all involved have embraced both the opportunity and responsibility that we have to make things better for everyone,” said Sky’s managing director, content, for the U.K. and Ireland, Zai Bennett, who led work on the charter alongside Richard Watsham, director of commissioning at UKTV.
“As a living document, the charter gives us all a useful framework to hold ourselves and others accountable, and it is an important first step in working together to improve conditions and create a culture of mutual respect and support.”
Coalition founder Amini added: “The Freelance Charter marks a huge step forward for our industry in acknowledging and tackling the issues faced by its workforce. When we launched the Coalition we stated its aims as three-fold: to professionalize the industry, invest in its talent, and create an ecosystem of respect. While there’s still room for more to be added to the charter, I’m confident that this is the first positive leap in creating a healthier and happier industry for us all and I am exceptionally grateful to all Coalition members for coming together and showing the good this industry can do when it unites as one.”
Netflix and the BBC will work together to promote disabled creatives on and off screen -- Variety reported. They have joined forces to develop and fund new dramas showcasing disabled voices over a new, five-year partnership.
The two companies will “consider projects from U.K. producers that have been created or co-created by writers who identify as deaf, disabled and/or neurodivergent,” they said in a statement. “We are looking for ideas which feel ambitious and elevated, and which challenge the limits that the industry might unconsciously put on disability. The intention of the partnership is to firmly place the shows alongside our most talked about and original dramas already being developed.”
The BBC and Netflix plan to make a webinar available to producers alongside a creative brief and outline of the process. The companies will assess pitches together and the BBC will act as an entry point for submissions and pitches.
The news comes just days after Enola Holmes writer Jack Thorne gave a moving MacTaggart Lecture at the Edinburgh TV Festival, condemning the television industry, saying it has “utterly and totally” failed disabled people.
“Gender, race, sexuality, all rightly get discussed at length. Disability gets relegated out,” Thorne said at the lecture. “Producers have ignored disabled writers. Commissioners haven’t taken the opportunity to tell disabled stories. There are very few disabled people in front of the camera, and even fewer behind it.”
“Deaf, disabled and neurodivergent creators are some of the least well represented groups on television in the U.K. Put simply, we want to change that fact,” said Anne Mensah, Netflix VP, series, U.K. “Together with the BBC, we hope to help these creators to tell the biggest and boldest stories and speak to the broadest possible British and global audience. It’s been hugely exciting to develop this project with Piers Wenger and the BBC drama team and we are incredibly passionate about the creative possibilities of this partnership.
“Jack’s powerful, memorable MacTaggart has shone a revealing light onto the extent of the challenges faced by disabled creatives,” added Piers Wenger, the BBC’s director of drama. “We recognize the need for change and we hope that in coming together the BBC and Netflix have created a funding model which will help level the playing field for deaf, disabled and neurodivergent creators in the U.K. We would like to thank Anne and her team for the readiness and vision they have shown in coming on board to develop this initiative with us.”
This is a great effort, and we look forward to similar initiatives and commitments from U.S.-based producers.
Time’s Up has come under fire from revelations about its leaders’ ties to former New York Gov. Andrew Cuomo. Former members and some sexual abuse survivors say the group has strayed from its mission, failing the women who needed its help the most, and instead letting itself be corrupted by the very powerful forces from whom it once pledged protection.
LA Times reported Time’s Up announced a period of self-analysis. Its leaders conducted two private conference calls with group members to assess the damage. Prior the meetings, Tina Tchen, Time’s Up President and Chief Executive, announced that the group would hire an outside consultant to review Time’s Up’s participation in the Cuomo matter and make suggestions on strengthening internal controls.
“We’re committed to rebuilding trust and leading responsibly in ways that honor and center the very people we want to serve,” Tchen wrote in a statement.
Former Time’s Up employees revealed to LA Times that the organization strayed from its mission a while ago. They alleged that board members had too much power to influence the daily work and frequently the organization addressed trending issues in the news that didn’t pertain to sexual abuse survivors.
“We weren’t doing any real work to help survivors,” said Megan D. Malloy, a digital media strategist and speech writer who left the organization in June 2020 after 13 months. “Instead, we could easily get our priorities scrambled in a day because a board member would have an idea about some issue. Then we would have to drop everything.”
A second former staff member also described being “pulled in a lot of different directions by powerful board members.” This person, who was not authorized to comment, also criticized the “mission creep,” as the group became involved in controversies other than promoting workplace safety or coming to the aid survivors of sexual assault and harassment.
For example, Time’s Up launched a social media campaign blasting the Hollywood Foreign Press Association for its lack of diversity and for ethical lapses detailed in a Los Angeles Times investigation.
“It was shiny object syndrome,” Malloy said. “It was whatever is catching the most attention, then gets the most energy. And often, it was not what was in the best interest of survivors or the movement, long-term.”
Amid the turmoil, questions have also been raised about how the charity spends its money. Time’s Up spent 45% more on staff salaries in 2019 than on its Legal Defense Fund — including $590,000 to Lisa Borders, who served less than two months that year as the nonprofit’s CEO, according to tax records reviewed by The Wrap.
Staff compensation represented a large portion of the Time’s Up budget in its first full year of operation. According to the group’s 2019 990 forms, Time’s Up took in nearly $11.5 million in contributions and other revenue in 2019, spent $4.5 million on salaries and other compensation, and handed out a total of $3.1 million in grants to the Time’s Up Legal Defense Fund.
While Borders resigned from the organization on February 18, 2019, after a sexual assault accusation against her son became public, she received $504,115 from the Time’s Up Foundation and an additional $86,654 from the organization’s advocacy arm, Time’s Up Now, according to tax records. These findings are raising eyebrows.
Can Time’s Up come back from consecutive scandals? Even critics of the organization say yes, and want them to succeed. But Time’s Up may only regain its reputation if the organization listens to survivors and shows them that it cares.
Alamo Drafthouse, an American cinema chain founded in 1997 in Austin, Texas is famous for serving dinner and drinks during the movie experience, but since 2017, it has been in the spotlight for sexual harassment allegations. According to IndieWire, last year, Drafthouse’s Kansas City location came under fire not only for sexual harassment, but also for racist attitudes toward customers, and other abuses. The management team has been reluctant to discuss the matter publicly, but recently, co-founder and executive chairman Tim League opened up about the allegations on a New York Times podcast, saying he takes responsibility and that the company has implemented changes with a goal of preventing abuses in the future.
In a 35-minute interview with Kara Swisher on Sway, League briefly discussed the fallout from the expose published by Kansas City alt weekly The Pitch in August 2020. Among the claims: managers sexually and physically abused employees and were never disciplined; employees who were injured on the job and were never properly accommodated; and reports that managers targeted predominantly Black audiences when enforcing its signature “no talking” rule.
“I take responsibility. I lead the company,” League said on the podcast. “You look into yourself, and your failings are pointed out, and you realize that you can do better. And so it was an opportunity to face that criticism and work really hard to try to be as good a company as we can. And perhaps I was more focused on the customer journey and maybe not the company culture journey, and maybe I took it for granted.”
“The only thing you can do is say, we didn’t do as good a job as we should have. I want this to be the best possible company just for customers and for our teammates, and I do believe that we’re on that path,” he continued.
Alamo filed for bankruptcy in March and came back two months later. It shuttered several underperforming locations, including the theater in Kansas City. That came after, like many theaters, Alamo closed all of its locations temporarily amid the pandemic before fully laying off more than 80 employees on the corporate side.
League said he doesn’t “lose sleep over” the idea that Alamo could become another private-equity horror story and close down for good. He said the company is planning on expanding to New York, St. Louis, Virginia, and Washington D.C. League also shared he has a controversial opinion on changes that the industry has undergone over the last year.
“I think what’s happened over the past year is ultimately, in the long haul, going to be a positive experience for this industry. Because the 90-day window of exclusive content for movies did allow the cinema industry to be on its heels, right? We have this guaranteed exclusive product window, ergo you can maybe not deliver the most perfect amazing experience every single time, but people have no other choice,” he said. “I like that there’s now newfound pressure on this industry to deliver an exceptional experience, because we can, and that’s the goal. And if we’re going to survive, we have to make sure from the idea of leaving the house to returning to the house, that we deliver on that ‘Cinema Paradiso’ ideal.”
Listen to the full interview with League at The New York Times.
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Demi Vitkute writes the weekly film industry news blog for Productions.com. She’s a journalist who has covered entertainment, fashion, and culture. Demi is a founder of The Urban Watch Magazine and has written for The Washington Post, Inside Hook, and Promo Magazine, among others. She is a graduate of Columbia Journalism School and Emerson College.