‘Wonder Pets!’ deal is a breakthrough

Volume CIX, No. 4April, 2009

by Fred Barton

I’ve been doing children’s TV since 1989. Since the advent of MIDI, the average low-level children’s show (i.e. not “Sesame Street”) consisted of a single employee — the composer — who was also the MIDI performer. It was a one-person shop, and it paid the comparatively low fees that PBS and cable TV offer. I believe the majority of such shows are still produced in this fashion.

“Wonder Pets!” was a phenomenon from its inception: a live symphonette, with approximately ten musicians, a composer, an orchestrator, a MIDI specialist, a copyist and a conductor. Suddenly we had a hit show with 15 music employees in place of the usual one.

The fact that the show became a hit, and the fact that Little Airplane was justifiably proud of its implementation of live musicians, presented an unprecedented opportunity.

Taking a show from an experimental nonunion situation to a union contract was predictably difficult for all concerned, with tumultuous ups and downs in the negotiations.

To Little Airplane’s credit, they came to the table in the first place, and despite some crazy ups and downs, the upshot is that they returned to the table in the end and agreed to a contract.

To Local 802’s credit, the negotiating team spent countless hours with us discussing the possibilities and listening to our concerns, keeping in mind the best- and worst-case scenarios. The worst-case scenario would have been for this opportunity to have been blown, and music production to be kept nonunion elsewhere or returned to the one-employee MIDI model.

Instead, a template has now been created that hopefully will encourage TV producers to consider the tremendous enhancement provided by live New York musicians.

The contract has the potential to raise the quality of music in countless future productions. Most importantly, the contract may create jobs for players, orchestrators, copyists, conductors and MIDI specialists for years and years to come. Finally, it may enable live musicians to resume their long-lost status as the standard bearers of quality television production — even on the lower levels of children’s programming, which have rarely seen live music.

Did we get the best imaginable deal? Of course not. We live in an increasingly nonunion world, and there isn’t a negotiation in the world that produces the best imaginable deal, especially starting from the low nonunion rates in place at the outset.

But the orchestrators and MIDI specialists have achieved a three-tiered raise starting at 50 percent, with union protections and benefits. The conductor won a raise. The players (who were already basically at union scale) won first refusal, along with union protections and benefits. Pension contributions are frequently undervalued by working musicians with their eye on the cash, but they are a significant enhancement to the total financial package — and now we have them.

Most importantly, Local 802 and Little Airplane demonstrated to the free-wheeling Wild West world of cable television that live music is financially viable and artistically desirable.

It’s not a perfect world. On our side, very few musicians attended the union meetings, and some are unhappy that labor negotiation means you don’t win non-negotiable demands. The producers have slightly reduced the size of the orchestra, attempting to hold their bottom line, at the expense of a quality cut.

But this is about more than this single production; it is an unprecedented opportunity. Many of my associates in children’s television said it would never happen. But it did, and this is a great thing. 

Fred Barton is an orchestrator for the “Wonder Pets!” series.