February 9, 2017 | 03:02PM PT

Leaders of the Writers Guild of America are placing a premium on increasing coverage and compensation for writers in the digital arena, according to the union’s latest message to its 12,000 members.

The WGA has started asking members to approve its “pattern of demands” letter for its upcoming negotiations with the major studios — a constitutionally required step that the guild must take before launching bargaining on a successor deal to its master contract. The current minimum basic agreement expires May 1. No date has been set yet for the start of negotiations with the Alliance of Motion Picture and Television Producers.

In a letter sent to members this week, the negotiating committee said, “The $49 billion annual operating profit accumulated by the six major media companies with whom we will be negotiating is double what their profit numbers were only a decade ago.

“Contrast that with the economic picture facing the members of our Guilds, whose average incomes in both features and series TV have actually decreased over that same decade. You’ve told Guild leadership in meetings and surveys that new models of development, production, and distribution – while making the companies richer—have not worked to your individual or collective advantage.”

The letter also said that members should contrast the companies’ prosperity with the state of guild’s Health Plan,  which, due to rapid inflation in health care costs nationwide, has run deficits for all but one of the past four years, forcing a dip into long-untouched reserves. ”

Getting our fair share will require resolve and solidarity and the willingness to fight if necessary,” the committee said. “But in a time of unprecedented profits for our industry, we believe it is our due.”

A decade ago, the WGA initiated a 100-day strike that had ripple effects across the industry but also gave the creative guilds important gains in residuals, royalties and jurisdiction for what was then the first flowering of made-for-digital entertainment. Subsequent negotiations in 2011 and 2014 were less acrimonious with the guild placing a premium on improvements in cable TV compensation.

This time around, as the volume of original series on Netflix, Amazon and Hulu and the popularity of streaming of TV content has expanded to eye-popping levels, there are rumblings in some writers rooms that it’s time for the guild to push for significant gains on the digital front. It remains to be seen, however, if significant numbers of scribes are prepared to back the guild if strike talk becomes a reality, especially at a time when work in TV and digital is so abundant.

The Directors Guild of America achieved gains in streaming residuals in the new contract that the helmers reached in December, which signals that the AMPTP is ready to give something on the digital front, because the DGA typically sets the basic template that the AMPTP offers to the WGA and SAG-AFTRA. The DGA’s three-year deal was ratified by its members two weeks ago and takes effect July 1.

The WGA’s pattern of demands include increased minimum compensation in all areas and an increase residuals for “under-compensated reuse markets,” likely a reference to SVOD and ad-supported VOD platforms.

Other items on the guild’s agenda:

  • expanding the types of made for new media programs subject to MBA minimums
  • increased contributions to the Pension Plan and Health Fund
  • strengthening economic and workplace protections for TV strengthen regulation of options and exclusivity provisions in television
  • address inequities in compensation for writing teams, a longtime complaint of writers for the practice of having to split a single salary among two or more writers in a team
  • provide paid family leave for writers employed under overall deals
  • amend a definition of a professional writer to include writing for new media
  • increase funding for the WGA’s showrunner training program and Tri-Guild audit
  • modify and expand all arbitrator panels

SAG-AFTRA has yet to locked in a start date for negotiations for its successor deal to its master contract covering features and primetime TV. The SAG-AFTRA deal runs out June 30. The national board of the performers union approved its proposal package on Jan. 22.

The WGA West announced last May that it planned to seek a bigger cut of the $49 billion in 2015 profits from the top six media conglomerates. The guild announced on Dec. 1 that it had selected Billy Ray, Chip Johannessen, and Chris Keyser to head its negotiating committee. It’s the second consecutive time that Ray (“Captain Phillips,” “The Hunger Games”) and Johannessen (“Homeland”) have been co-chairs of the negotiating committee.

Keyser served two two-year terms as WGA West president before being termed out in 2015. Ray was also co-chair for the 2010-11 negotiations. The committee includes Patric Verrone, who served as president during the strike, “House of Cards” showrunner Beau Willimon, “Timeless” showrunner Shawn Ryan, “Straight Outta Compton” co-writer Andrea Berloff and “Erin Brockovich” screenwriter Susannah Grant.

The WGA’s two branches, based in Los Angeles and New York, negotiate jointly on the deal.

Here’s the letter to WGA members:

Dear Fellow Writers,

On May 1st the current Minimum Basic Agreement (MBA) covering most WGA writing expires. The Negotiating Committee has set goals for our upcoming bargaining sessions with the AMPTP. Now we need to make sure the membership understands and agrees with our agenda and approach.

Let’s lay out the context. The 49 billion dollar annual operating profit accumulated by the six major media companies with whom we will be negotiating is double what their profit numbers were only a decade ago.

Contrast that with the economic picture facing the members of our Guilds, whose average incomes in both features and series TV have actually decreased over that same decade. You’ve told Guild leadership in meetings and surveys that new models of development, production, and distribution – while making the companies richer—have not worked to your individual or collective advantage.

And contrast the companies’ prosperity with the state of our Health Plan which, due to rapid inflation in health care costs nationwide, has run deficits for all but one of the past four years, forcing a dip into long-untouched reserves. Getting our fair share will require resolve and solidarity and the willingness to fight if necessary. But in a time of unprecedented profits for our industry, we believe it is our due.

Now we need to know where you stand.

You will soon receive an invitation to participate in one of a series of outreach meetings the WGAW and WGAE will convene over the next six weeks. These are critical meetings as we prepare to negotiate with the companies.We thank you for your support, and look forward to hearing from you over the coming weeks.

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