MTV 'Permalancers' Walk Out Over Cut in Benefits

But Viacom Lags Behind Others in Using Freelance Staff

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NEW YORK ( -- A rallying crowd of 200 freelancers for MTV Networks took to the streets of New York yesterday after Viacom's re-evaluated benefits package prompted a walkout outside the company's headquarters on 1515 Broadway.
News of the new benefits plan came to freelancers at the same time they were disinvited from the Viacom holiday party.
News of the new benefits plan came to freelancers at the same time they were disinvited from the Viacom holiday party.

The group of permanent freelancers, or permalancers, was comprised of employees who had been working for the MTV Networks (MTV, VH1 and Nickelodeon) for more than 365 consecutive days; that crowd includes writers, producers and talent.

Significant number
The walkout's organizers estimated that freelancers comprised 50% of the MTVN work force. An MTV Networks spokesperson said the total was less than 50%, but still represented a significant number in addition to the 5,500 global employees.

MTV Networks began the year by laying off 250 of its full-time employees, including President-CEO Michael Wolf, and restructuring the entire company by reorganizing the networks and their employees into five different clusters: music and Logo, kids and family, sales and strategic services, entertainment and international. The MTV spokesperson said that during the restructuring, the freelancers' benefits package remained intact while the full-time staffers received a new plan. The new package for freelancers represented the first re-evaluation of their benefits under the new infrastructure.

News of the new plan came to freelancers at the same time they were disinvited from the Viacom holiday party, held last Thursday in New York. Florencia Costa, a writer for MTV Radio and an MTVN permalancer for the last four years, said she and her fellow permalancers were completely caught by surprise by the news and were asked to sign an agreement to the new terms by last Friday "so we wouldn't have time to do things like this," she said during the walkout.

Wages 'really low already'
MTV Networks' human resources department has since extended the deadline to this Friday. "They have a huge budget for their Christmas party, something like $1 million, and not enough money for their employees to have health insurance," Ms. Costa said. "Our wages are really low already. We can't afford our own health insurance."

Ben Yondo, a designer for Nickelodeon of the last three years who brandished a bright-orange Nickelodeon logo that had been altered to read "Sickelodeon," said the current freelance package bars him from entering the Freelancers Union, which would provide workers with a full benefits package. "Viacom likes to say they have a really small staff so it looks like they're a really efficient company to investors," he said.

Other media groups, such as Discovery Communications, have done away with entire divisions of their companies this year in an effort to improve bottom-line growth. This spring Discovery CEO David Zaslav folded the 110 Discovery retail locations across the country and was able to turn that segment into a profitable e-commerce platform.

"I wanted to start over," Mr. Zaslav said last week at the UBS Global Media and Communications Conference in New York. "We had been losing a significant amount of money for the last 10 years. I looked at the stores and thought, how did those make us stronger?"

Further behind
Jason Forbes, VP-media and entertainment for media-advisory firm Capgemini, said media companies like Viacom are a bit further behind in the adoption of outsourcing some of their creative work for the sake of core cost efficiencies. Publishing, gaming and broadcasting are all sectors that have similar approaches to working with production companies and studios to produce content rather than keeping it all in-house. Having an additional third-party team help out on the production side, he said, has become very desirable to agencies and media companies in recent years.

"It allows you to have a new product launched in April rather than next year," Mr. Forbes said. "We're certainly seeing a desire from companies to be more nimble and more flexible."
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