Business models for E!, Style and G4 built on inexpensive original programming produced with non-union labor
A question that Comcast might have overlooked in its $30 billion merger with NBC Universal: How will its existing, largely non-union cable channels — like E!, Style and G4 — react?
It's not being overlooked anymore.
Writers for the three channels voted Tuesday to join the WGA West in an overwhelming 46-1 majority.
“It’s almost like Comcast didn’t think of that,” as one Writers Guild of America West official put it to TheWrap on Wednesday.
The vote, announced at Los Angeles City Hall by City Council president Eric Garcetti, who oversaw the secret ballot process, only affects about 60-65 writers, working on shows like “E! News,” “The Soup,” “Fashion Police” and “Attack of the Show.”
In the context of a company making a $30 billion purchase, upping benefits and raises to WGA standards for 60-something writers shouldn't a big deal.
But for channels that have, for decades, based their original-series program models on inexpensive, non-union talent across the board, WGA officials think Comcast is more concerned about what's next.
“They don’t want to open the door to other unions,” said Jeff Hermanson, assistant executive director of the Writers Guild of America West. “They’ve been operating for years with a non-union business model, and now that they’re moving into Hollywood, they’d like to maintain that as much as possible.”
Added WGA West president John Wells (pictured below): “Comcast has a history as an organization of not being supportive of union workers.”
That's not entirely true.
Talent appearing on E! and Style are covered under agreements with the American Federation of TV and Radio Artists. But these agreements were made before November 2006, when the channels became wholly owned by Comcast.
On-air talent for G4, meanwhile, is not covered under any such AFTRA agreement.
Beyond that, it’s unclear as to what talent and crew working on E!, Style and G4 are covered under union deals.
Comcast officials didn’t respond to inquiries from TheWrap on Wednesday, only releasing a statement that says the company doesn’t recognize what it considers to be the “an informal poll” conducted this week by the WGA West.
In fact, Comcast only reiterated Wednesday its long-held position that it will only recognize a unionization process that goes through the National Labor Relations Board.
“This was not an NLRB-sanctioned election and has no binding effect,” the Comcast statement read.
For their part, WGA officials believe Comcast’s position only forestalls the inevitable.
Once full of nascent operations, the basic cable universe is now ripe with maturing business models reaping healthy profits, and the Comcast channels stick out conspicuously among the last bastion of cable platforms employing non-union writers.
And it's not like these channels are small potatoes anymore.
In April, for example, Comcast reported a 12 percent overall profit gain, with a 25 percent year-to-year improvement in advertising revenue across its cable channels helping lead the way.
“We’ve been slowly working our way through what used to be start-ups, identifying companies that have moved into the mainstream, like we did with (Viacom’s now WGA-signatory) Comedy Central a few years ago,” Wells explained. “These channels have very clearly moved into that world where they can afford to pay health and pension benefits for their workers.”
And with powerful government figures, like California Senator Barbara Boxer backing the WGA in this matter, how can Comcast resist for much longer when it has a big corporate merger it has to get approved.
Is strike rhetoric — which wasn't overtly stated, but was on everyone's lips at City Hall Wednesday — a good thing when you're trying to gain merger approval?
Perhaps most compelling to Comcast’s Philadelphia headquarters will be the question, how can offer writers for NBC, Bravo and Oxygen enjoy union coverage, and not those for E!, Style and G4?
“The overall model of their new venture is going to be a union business model,” Hermanson said. “To leave some people out doesn’t seem to make sense.”