Live TV Musicians Claim “Systemic Racism” At Networks To Blame For Lack Of Economic Parity

Claiming that “systemic racism” is to blame for a lack of “economic parity,” more than three dozen live television musicians have signed an open letter to the TV networks calling for parity with their colleagues – actors, writers and directors – in the area of wages, health care contributions and residuals payments on streaming platforms.

Signers include John Baptiste, the bandleader for The Late Show with Stephen Colbert; Eli Brueggemann, music director for Saturday Night Live; and Paul Mirkovich, musical director for the house band on The Voice.

The letter states that during contract negotiations earlier this month between the broadcast networks and the American Federation of Musicians, “Your companies acknowledged that live television musicians are the only sector of the industry exhibiting substantial racial diversity, but at the bargaining table we are told that our contributions are worth less than those of actors, writers, and directors, even though we give just as much. You cannot ignore that the other guilds are predominately white and are compensated at a higher rate with residual payments for streamed content, health care, and wages.”

A spokesperson for the union said that “the major television networks have acknowledged that the live television musicians are the only sector of the industry exhibiting racial diversity, but then the networks told musicians at the bargaining table that they are not ‘talent’ at the level of the writers, actors, and singers – the predominantly whiter and less diverse segments of the industry – who receive better compensation and health care. System or structural racism occurs when the networks take work done by a group of musicians and value it less and therefore worthy of less remuneration than the work done by singers, writers, directors, and members of the other guilds and unions.”

The letter was addressed to Dana Walden, chairman of Disney Television Studios and ABC Entertainment; Mark Lazarus, chairman of NBCUniversal Television and Streaming; George Cheeks, president and CEO of the CBS Entertainment Group, and Bob Bakish, CEO of CBSViacom.

“Historically our union (AFM) has been more inclusive of Black, Indigenous and People of Color (BIPOC) members than the other unions inside of the live TV industry,” the letter says. “Unfortunately, this goes hand-in-hand with its members being economically disrespected, undervalued and underpaid in comparison to those of other unions. Systemic racism becomes the status quo regardless of intention or awareness, but now you have the opportunity to rewrite this narrative.

“We are aware of how consumer-based enterprises value diversity, equity and inclusion. A cultural shift is happening across the globe and consumers are watching and listening. Your networks’ shows use Black music and BIPOC people for humor, healing, and processing emotional content. The clips in these shows, made possible by us and in which we appear, generate millions of views and tens of millions of dollars in advertising revenue for your networks on streaming platforms like Peacock, CBS All Access, and Disney+, and yet we must continually beg for what the other guilds already receive.

“You have yet to show a willingness to reach a meaningful agreement with the most diverse workforce in the entertainment industry: live television musicians. Now is the time to fix this problem by no longer taking advantage of us and offering economic parity with our creative colleagues.

“We demand fair wages, fair health coverage, and equal residuals for work used on streaming platforms. By addressing these demands you will demonstrate to us a commitment to value all working musicians and you will demonstrate to the world a powerful example of action toward dismantling systemic racism.”

Other signers include members of the house bands on The Tonight Show Starring Jimmy Fallon, Late Night with Seth Meyers, Jimmy Kimmel Live!, Dancing With the Stars and The Late Late Show with James Corden.

See the full letter and signers here.

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