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  • Writer's pictureThe San Juan Daily Star

Tony Awards broadcast can proceed after striking writers’ union agrees


Advertising for several Broadway shows at Duffy Square in Times Square in New York, May 15, 2023. Tony Awards administrators held an emergency meeting on Monday to try to salvage this year’s ceremony in the face of a strike by screenwriters that is imperiling the broadcasting of the event.

By Michael Paulson and John Koblin


This year’s Tony Awards ceremony, which had been in doubt ever since Hollywood’s screenwriters went on strike earlier this month, will proceed as scheduled in an altered form after the writers’ union said Monday night that it would not picket the show.


“As they have stood by us, we stand with our fellow workers on Broadway who are impacted by our strike,” the Writers Guild of America, which represents screenwriters, said in a statement late Monday.


A disruption could have been damaging to Broadway, which sees the televised ceremony as a key marketing opportunity, particularly now, when audiences have yet to return to pre-pandemic levels. Several nominated shows have been operating at a loss, holding on in the hopes that a Tony win — or even exposure on the broadcast — could boost sales.


The union made it clear that the broadcast, which is scheduled to air on CBS on June 11, would be different from past ceremonies.


“Tony Awards Productions (a joint venture of the Broadway League and the American Theater Wing) has communicated with us that they are altering this year’s show to conform with specific requests from the WGA, and therefore the WGA will not be picketing the show,” the union said in a statement. “Responsibility for having to make changes to the format of the 2023 Tony Awards rests squarely on the shoulders of Paramount/CBS and their allies. They continue to refuse to negotiate a fair contract for the writers represented by the WGA.”


The union did not detail what those differences would be, and the Tony Awards administrators did not have any immediate comment. But a person familiar with the plan, who was granted anonymity to speak about conditions that are not yet public, said the revised broadcast would include the presentation of key awards and live performances of songs from Broadway shows, but that it would not feature any scripted material by screenwriters in its opening number or comedic patter.


The Tony Awards agreed that they would not use any part of a draft script that had been written before the screenwriters’ strike began, said the person.


It was not immediately clear what role, if any, Ariana DeBose will play in the unscripted show. The Oscar-winning, Broadway-loving actress had hosted the awards ceremony last year, and had agreed to host again this year.


It became clear immediately after the screenwriters went on strike that the labor disruption could affect the Tony Awards, because the awards ceremony is televised (by CBS) and livestreamed (by Paramount+) and ordinarily features a script written by screenwriters.


Broadway is a heavily unionized industry, and unionized theater workers like actors and musicians were not going to participate in an awards ceremony being protested by another labor union. Tony Awards administrators, aware of those concerns, asked the WGA for a waiver that would have allowed its writers to work on the show, given the dire straits of the theater industry; on Friday, the WGA denied that request, and Monday night it reiterated that denial, saying that the guild “will not negotiate an interim agreement or a waiver for the Tony Awards.”


But Tony Awards administrators did not give up, and asked the guild if, even without a waiver to allow screenwriters to work on the show, it would allow the broadcast to proceed without writers as long as it meets certain conditions.


Prominent theater artists who work on Broadway and are allied with the writers guild also spoke up on behalf of the Tonys, arguing that forcing the show off the air would be devastating to the art form and to the many arts workers it employs. The combination of the lobbying efforts and the new conditions appears to have prompted the guild to say Monday night that it would not picket the broadcast.


The striking screenwriters have argued that their wages have stagnated and working conditions have deteriorated despite the fact that television production has exploded over the last decade. Negotiations between the major Hollywood studios — represented by the Alliance of Motion Picture and Television Producers — and the WGA broke down three weeks ago. Roughly 11,500 writers went on strike beginning May 2.


Over the past two weeks, the writers have assembled picket lines outside the major studios in Los Angeles and production soundstages in New York. But the writers have also gone farther afield, with some taking to picket outside productions in more far-flung locales like Maplewood, New Jersey, Chicago and Philadelphia.


The threat of demonstrations forced Netflix to cancel a major in-person showcase for advertisers, which was scheduled for Wednesday, and to turn it into a virtual format instead. The company also canceled an appearance for Ted Sarandos, Netflix’s co-CEO, at the PEN America Literary Gala on Thursday.


CBS has been broadcasting the Tonys since the 1970s, making it one of the longest continuous relationships between a single broadcaster and an awards show. CBS has a deal to broadcast the show through 2026. Because of the Tonys’ relatively low viewership, it has long been more of a prestige play for the network than a significant profit maker.

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