Dispatches From WGA Picket Lines Day 14: Neil Gaiman, Jordan Klepper & Dave Foley Among 200 Writers Picketing NBCUniversal Upfronts
UPDATED with more details: Upfront week opened in New York City on Monday morning with ad buyers, TV executives and others walking in the middle of a street in Midtown Manhattan to get around protestors and WGA picket lines — and from there into Radio City Music Hall for the first of the networks’ big fall preview presentations.
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Invitees to the NBCUniversal 2023 upfront, briefly sharing the roadway with cars and trucks, were also greeted by more than 200 striking members of the Writers Guild of America and other sign-waving union supporters who ringed three sides of Radio City and urged the arrivals not to cross the line on Day 14 of the Hollywood scribes’ work stoppage.
The guests did get in, anyways, without incident but not without an earful of “shut it down,” anti-NBC chants, in the first of several demonstrations planned by WGA East organizers outside of network upfronts happening in the city through Wednesday. (WGA also sent protestors — and coffee — to the site of a Fox Television upfront at another location about a mile away.)
RELATED: Deadline’s Full Strike Coverage
A handful of well-known writers, actors and on-screen personalities — Nail Gaiman, satirist Jordan Klepper, David Simon and Dave Foley — walked with their WGA, SAG-AFTRA and DGA colleagues, joined by members of the stagehands’ union IATSE, and students and faculty from the City University of New York.
The street protest took familiar shape: Bands of marchers walked short laps outside of several entrances to Radio City, slowing — but not blocking — foot traffic in and out as they brandished signs, shouted in rhymes, and cheered passing motorists who honked in support.
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Good Omens novelist and showrunner Gaiman walked alongside Fargo actor Foley in a line of sign-waving picketers who streamed along Sixth Avenue, and back and forth underneath Radio City’s famous marquee — emblazoned on Monday with “Welcome to the NBCUniversal Upfront.”
The fantasy and sci-fi novelist and screenwriter had a message of his own: “Pencils the f*ck down,” printed in block white letters on his red t-shirt.
“I’ve spent my life as a writer,” Gaiman told Deadline. “Right now, I’m showrunning three shows, and we need contracts. These people need contracts.” Watch here:
Wearing a non-black T-shirt for the first time in decades, Gaiman said he was “incredibly fortunate” to finish the new season of Good Omens before the strike. “We handed it in at the end of March and it’ll be out July 28th,” he said.
Other Gaiman projects include the second season of Netflix’s The Sandman and Amazon’s Anansi Boys. “But the other stuff — I’m not doing anything on them,” the author and showrunner added.
He said the issue that has galvanized him more than any in support of the WGA strike is the industry’s treatment of younger writers. Like other show runners joining picket lines since May 2 — when the WGA contract with film and television producers including NBCUniversal expired with no deal — Gaiman was harsh in his appraisal of “the phenomenon that they call the mini-room, where you get six or seven writers in a room for six or seven weeks and that is their involvement in a show.”
Gaiman said mini-rooms are producing “a generation of writers who are not on set, who don’t know how to make TV,” adding, “Fundamentally it’s a flawed system and we’ll need to fix it.”
Foley, an alumnus of The Kids in the Hall who joined FX’s black-humored crime drama Fargo for its fifth season, agreed. “It’s incredibly shortsighted, as Neil had said, to structure the business in a way that nobody learns the business,” he said. “Nobody can progress from being a writer to a showrunner if they aren’t on a contract that lets them learn and so there’s not going to be another generation of great showrunners that produce things like the great work that Neil does.”
“I just finished working on [Fargo], that has some of the best writing on television, working with Noah Hawley, who’s brilliant,” Foley said. “We’re not going to produce a lot of new Noah Hawleys if we don’t give writers a chance to learn the business and learn how to make television. People coming from the executive offices are not going to come up with ideas, and they’re not going to produce good work. That’s not what they do.”
Foley added that the 2023 strike reminds him of past labor disputes in film and television.
“I guess it’s sort of fundamental to capitalism that any time a technology comes along that makes it possible to stop paying the people that produce the things that produce your profit, people stop paying them …now streaming is not included,” Foley added – as you can see below:
“The only way to ever get people paid what they’re deserved is to stop things from being produced,” Dave Foley tells Deadline outside of NBCUniversal Upfront in NYC today #WritersStrike pic.twitter.com/a2ZoBCJ2Um
— Deadline Hollywood (@DEADLINE) May 15, 2023
Greg Iwinski, an Emmy-winning television writer and WGA East council member, said that keeping demonstrations going for as long the strike continues lets the studios know they won’t be permitted to conduct business as usual. “You don’t get to operate when you’re not bargaining in good faith,” Iwinski said.
David Simon, creator of The Wire, told Deadline that disagreement between writers and studios is sharpest on two issues: whether writing will be gig work or term employment in the future; and “the use, or misuse, of AI.”
“We’re at the threshold of a new frontier in terms of technology. There are things that AI can do and there are things it clearly can’t do. And as writers we need to delineate what is right — what is true and viable writing and what is not, and what is an affront to writing,” the WGA Negotiating Committee member said. “And that moment is now.”
Tommy Bayiokos, a musician, part-time actor and SAG-AFTRA member walking the picket line on Monday, said, “You cannot take the human element out of writing.”
More commonly covering MAGA rallies than doing the marching himself, The Daily Show correspondent Jordan Klepper told Deadline on the picket line that as far apart as the sides are right now, he’s not in despair. “I live in the political sphere and I have a lot of hope that things will trend towards sanity,” he said. “And I think in this sphere, I have a similar hope, that it will trend towards fairness.
“So that’s why I show up,” he said of picketing, “and I do think there’s a lot of smart people, and a lot of people, that are supporting this cause, and so I do have hope. And I have hope that this ends soon.”
As has occurred on both coasts over the past two weeks, the picketing writers in NYC Monday also heard from a political guest speaker. Rep. Max Frost, a first-term Democrat from Orlando, Florida, grabbed a bullhorn speaker and led a brief mini-rally in the middle of the picket line under the Radio City marquee before joining the march. The Congressman exhorted anyone in earshot to support working wages not just for striking writers, but the entire television and film industry workforce, from the production assistants on up.
Frost, who worked in production for live music festivals before getting elected, told Deadline that unions draw their strength — and their ability to wage potentially lengthy strikes — from the varied support that he said he was seeing on this picket line. “There’s production people here, there’s people from all across the spectrum, and I think that shows this is what union power really is about,” he said. “It’s about everybody together.”
The PAs for the NBC Upfronts sent some Dunkin' to the line outside of Radio City Music Hall today to show their support! 🥰 #WGAStrong #1u pic.twitter.com/1FO08opJcI
— Writers Guild of America, East (@WGAEast) May 15, 2023
In addition to the writers strike, there were other issues for some outside of Radio City. Advertising execs who streamed out of the event around midday were handed leaflets that covered a range of other topics involving the company.
“NBCUniversal is breaking the law, union-busting, and bargaining in bad faith,” read a leaflet.
“For three years, NBC management has repeatedly broken federal labor law while slow-walking a contract with its digital news workers,” it opened.
The leafletting comes after around 300 workers across NBC News, MSNBC and Today Digital, which make up the NBC Digital News Guild, walked out in February over what they say is unlawful actions including laying off seven bargaining unit members.
The guild is also railing against reports that NBCUniversal instructed managers to “break up unionization efforts”. It also claims that the company “refuses to release employees bound by NDAs in cases of harassment and discrimination” following the firing of CEO Jeff Shell.
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