More about: RSS | Wireless Wireless

Why SpongeBob is sitting out the writers strile

Sunday, December 23, 2007

HOLLYWOOD — You won't see SpongeBob SquarePants or Dora the Explorer on the picket lines. JoJo, Ed, Edd and Eddy also are sitting it out.

Instead, they — or, rather, the writers of those animated namesake shows — are still working, despite a strike by Hollywood writers that has idled the TV industry for weeks.

Rebecca McEntee

Animated shows' audiences are constantly renewed as generations change. The shows thrive on merchandise, like the 'SpongeBob' backpack Bianca Nicole Scheuermann carried at age 2.

That's because animation writers are not employed under the same Writers Guild of America contracts that cover live-action movies and TV programs. With the exception of a handful of prime-time animated shows on Fox, animation largely falls under the jurisdiction of the International Alliance of Theatrical Stage Employees, a rival union not on strike, or no union at all.

As a result, cable channels such as Nickelodeon and Cartoon Network, whose schedules are dependent upon animation, are flourishing while broadcast networks such as CBS and NBC are bracing for audience fallout as original live-action programming dries up because of the writers strike.

"The majority of our networks will not be affected by a WGA strike, and for those that will, our exposure is limited," said a spokeswoman for MTV Networks, which operates Nickelodeon.

As a source for programming, animation is like an annuity. There is virtually no limit to the number of times an animated show can be repeated; witness decades-old shows such as "The Jetsons" and "Huckleberry Hound" that continue to be staples on the Cartoon Network.

"It's relatively inexpensive programming," said Hal Vogel, a media-industry analyst who runs Vogel Capital Management. "It's convenient filler material, and it's replayable for generations into the future."

The ability to recruit continually new generations of viewers makes animation immensely profitable.

Nickelodeon, a unit of Viacom Inc., this year will generate $1.9 billion in revenue and $1.3 billion in cash flow, research firm SNL Kagan estimates. The Cartoon Network, owned by Time Warner Inc., will have revenue this year of $545.5 million and cash flow of $237.5 million.

And the viewers become buyers.

Since Nickelodeon's "Dora the Explorer" went on the air in 2000, related merchandise has racked up more than $5.3 billion in retail sales. Retail sales for "SpongeBob SquarePants," introduced in 1999, have topped $6.3 billion, according to Viacom.

But none of that trickles down to animation writers.

Unlike writers of live-action movies and television, animation writers do not get paid residuals directly. If they belong to the Animation Guild of the International Alliance, which has contracts with many producers of animation for television, their residuals are funneled into health and pension plans.

But as a result, animation writers do not get the paycheck that can tide them over during the stretches between employment that are the inevitable lot of the writer, actor and director in Hollywood — for which residuals are intended.

Although Walt Disney Co. has a contract with the alliance to cover feature animation writers, others, such as Pixar, producer of "Cars" and "Ratatouille," and Fox's Blue Sky Studios, which made the "Ice Age" movies, are not a signatory to any union.

The weaker position animation writers find themselves in is a legacy from the early days of the genre, when cartoons and animated movies were more the product of illustrators and storyboard artists than scriptwriters.

"The cold, hard truth is that the WGA did not care one way or another to try to organize the writers," said Steve Hulett, a business representative of the Animation Guild, about the WGA's early relationship with animation writers. "What changed is that animation got so much more high-profile."

Animation union organizing in Hollywood has a tortured history. Walt Disney told Congress in 1947 that the Screen Cartoonists Guild, the forerunner of the current animators union, was "taking orders from Moscow." The Animation Guild was formed in 1952 by cartoonists at Disney and Warner Bros.

But animation writers represent 9 percent of the Animation Guild's 2,400 members. The majority are animation artists, such as illustrators and storyboard artists.

The exception are those who write for Fox's prime-time animated series. In 1998, the WGA signed an unprecedented agreement with Fox to make "The Simpsons," "Futurama" and "King of the Hill" signatories to the guild.

"Everyone expected a big fight with the studio," said Mike Scully, a producer of "The Simpsons." "But it never materialized, because they conceded that prime-time animation was successful and everyone was benefiting."

"We wanted to treat everyone equally," said Chris Alexander, spokesman for Fox's television division.

Well, perhaps some more equally than others. The writers of "The Simpsons" had a powerful ally on their side: James L. Brooks, executive producer of the show, which has made billions in syndication and licensing revenue for Fox.

But the WGA has been unsuccessful in organizing any other animated show. Tony Segall, WGA general counsel, said the guild had been undermined by labor laws that allowed parent companies to be signatories while their divisions such as Nickelodeon or Disney Animation are not.

Keith Kaczorek, who wrote for such Nickelodeon animated shows as "The Backyardigans," says it is ironic that he receives royalties from songs he wrote for the show but not residuals for the episode scripts he wrote.

Animation writers, Kaczorek said, are caught in the middle of a battle between the International Alliance, which has been their union home, and WGA, which is the dominant writers union.

"There is a little bit of a turf war," Kaczorek says. "It becomes a complicated issue when you talk about organizing writing and animation, because you have two competing unions."