Free is NOT an Option, WGGB tells European Writers’ Council delegates in Brussels

Speech given by Bill Armstrong, Chair of the WGGB TV Committee, at the European Writers’ Council’s annual general meeting and conference in Brussels on 2-3 November 2014

Working on spec is part and parcel of a television writer’s life. In our own time and at our own expense we research, create and develop ideas and scripts. This has always been the case and always will be. Production companies, for their part, are understandably reluctant to commit financially to an idea at an uncertain stage of its development. But at some point a line is crossed. Beyond this line it is wrong to expect the writer to continue to bear all the risk and all the expense in return for only a proportion of the potential reward. Beyond this line it is unfair and exploitative to expect a writer to carry on working for free.

Over the past few years, this line has shifted dramatically. A Writers’ Guild of Great Britain survey last year found that 87% of UK TV writers had experienced a significant increase in the amount and kinds of work they had been asked to do for free. Long-standing agreements and guidelines are regularly being flouted. Virtually all UK independent production companies and broadcasters have been asking, cajoling or pressuring writers to do more and more work for free. Development departments say they can’t afford to pay for ideas, treatments, development, options on existing scripts or sometimes even rewrites to those scripts. More and more, options aren’t even discussed or writers are offered ‘one-pound’ options, ‘shopping ‘options’ or some variant of a free option. If we are to have a sustainable industry, this has to stop. Free is NOT an Option.

It is extremely worrying how far the dominant narrative on this has shifted and how commonplace and acceptable it has become to expect writers to work for free. At a public meeting, a senior BBC executive recently dismissed the Guild’s concerns about ‘free’ options on the grounds that, “No one becomes a writer to make money.” Like so many he insisted that indies have no money for development. He said people working in development departments aren’t paid for development either, adding parenthetically, “Apart from their salaries.”

It is ironic that the heads of our broadcasting companies should hold such views. Of late there has been much debate about the lack of cultural diversity on our screens. Initiatives – invariably unpaid – are rolled out but seldom make much difference. The elephant in the room, predictably, is never addressed. If so much of a writer’s work has to be done for free, the only people who can afford to enter the business or remain in it are those who have an unlimited overdraft facility from the bank of mum and dad. And those people are most likely to be white and middle-class. If we carry on the way we are going, we will soon find ourselves in the situation where the only voices we hear and the only stories that get told are those of the independently wealthy.

It may well be that indies do not budget for development – but not because they lack the money. The truly independent production company is an anachronism. Danny Cohen, director of BBC TV, recently described the consolidation in the production industry as ‘a gold rush’. Whether intentional or not, the allusion to the Wild West, with the connotations of lawlessness it entails, is apt. Resources are increasingly concentrated in large, well-capitalised and institutionally exploitative conglomerates. If those conglomerates squeeze their subsidiaries to the point where they cannot properly fund the development work on which their existence depends, the answer is to put pressure on them to do so. The answer is not to claw back the shortfall by squeezing writers further. There is only so much pressure you can put on people before you crush them. If the companies that ultimately run our television industry don’t budget for development, it’s not because they can’t afford it. It’s because they know they can get away with it.

The obvious answer to this exploitation is for writers to ‘just say no’. However, the pressures on new writers and even those with considerable experience are enormous and growing. Production companies and broadcasters make it brutally clear that working for free is the only way to be considered for a commission or a place on an existing show. And writers are isolated and highly vulnerable to pressure. Less than half of UK TV writers belong to their union.

The Writers’ Guild of Great Britain is working with its most experienced members to compile guidelines on what a writer should and shouldn’t do for free. In the long run, devaluing their own work does a writer no favours, and hurts all writers in the process. The Guild is also drawing up a 10-point negotiation primer – how to say no and talk about money without risking the gig.

The Guild’s guidelines will reflect the broadcasting world we live in but also protect the writers’ fundamental right to be paid fairly. The Guild will take these guidelines to broadcasters and indies and start to build a consensus.

It is crucial that every attempt is made to educate those within our industry and in the wider public as to what is involved in the writing process. Too many people, even those most involved with writers, lack any true understanding of the writing process or the time and effort it takes. It is easy to say, “Just give us a page of A4.” Reducing the complexity of an entire series to a few paragraphs involves considerably more than simply typing out 500 words.

The hardest work that writers do, they do for free. Having invested their own time, energy and money in the construction of the blueprints, they must be paid to build the house. Re-writing the narrative on this will not be easy. The forces ranged against the writer are powerful and will take some convincing. But writers may have more leverage than they imagine. The powers that be in UK TV are desperate for content. Without the writers’ voices, without the stories they write, they have nothing. And they know it.