Thoughts on the writers strike
The WGA has been on strike for nearly two weeks now. How long will it go on? Who knows? But I figured I’d chime in here with a few thoughts on the writers strike while it’s fresh in everyone’s mind. (Or, less likely, before it suddenly ends.)
Naturally, most TV bloggers mention it daily. It’s the top headline in the business. Now, I’m not a TV blogger, but I happen to blog more about TV than anything else in my less-than-superfrequent blog, if those tallies in the categories to the left are any indication. But I’m someone who has never made much of an effort to learn the finer points of the workings of the WGA (just how does residual payment work, anyway?) or how much they might or might not be screwed by the film studios. Of late, I’ve been keeping up with things via Maureen Ryan’s indispensable TV blog.
But the strike and the pickets, if they were a PR campaign, have done their job for me, because they have raised my awareness. It has become impossible in the past few weeks not to become aware of the issues involved. The writers have definitely been winning the PR war, thanks in large part to the relative silence of the studios.
And the fact that the studios don’t really seem to have a case to stand on.
It seems to me that the studio’s case is weak at best. They have taken a beating in recent years in terms of their ratings. Ratings simply, inevitably go down. This is because there are more options than ever, and the increasing popularity of the DVR is threatening to displace a long-established advertising paradigm. If everyone DVRs their shows and skips the commercials, what are those commercials worth to the people who pay for them? Less and less every year. The paradigm shift is coming, and the studios are loath to embrace it.
But they are finally trying. Studios are turning to the Internet as a source of new advertising revenue in an effort to offset the hemorrhaging in traditional media. And I doubt they are making as much money in new media as they are currently losing in traditional media. It’s a Band-Aid at best.
Consequently, they want to keep all the money they make in new media to improve their bottom lines. And they do this at the expense of the people who create the content: the writers.
Now, I’ll grant that there might be uses for materials online that writers shouldn’t be paid for. Promotional material, for example. If NBC puts up a clip of “The Office” on YouTube that shows Jim imitating Dwight, and that clip is only a couple minutes long and plays like a trailer, then the writer probably shouldn’t be paid. That’s clearly promotional.
But not everything is “promotional” (which is one of the key points in this dispute). If NBC puts the entire season of “Friday Night Lights” on its web site — and has a sponsor that is clearly paying to advertise on it — well, that’s no longer “promotional,” is it? The writers should get their cut of the revenue for that, whether that revenue is purely intended to stop the studio’s bleeding or not.
If Internet media is the future of television revenue — and it will be at least in small part — then the studios owe it to the writers to compensate them fairly. This admittedly less-than-fair-and-balanced video drives home the point.
And when there’s original content produced for network’s web sites — like with the Battlestar Galactica webisodes last year — then the creators definitely should be paid for the hours they worked.
I was stunned to learn that the creative staff of “BSG” was originally not going to be paid for creating those webisodes. I guess I had simply assumed as a given the studio would want to pay their creative staff for original web content. One (although not me) could argue that a writer has been compensated for an episode that has already been broadcast on TV and doesn’t need to be paid again for its posting online. But not paid at all for new work?
“When we were approached to do ‘Galactica’ Webisodes, the studio’s position was they didn’t want to pay anyone to do it. They considered it promotional material. They weren’t going to pay any of the writers or the actors or the directors to do it, which we thought was crazy.”
— Ronald D. Moore, executive producer of “Battlestar Galactica”
He’s right. It is crazy. It’s one thing to call clips or trailers promotional material. It’s quite another thing to call original content “promotional.” And even if it was promotional — which I would argue it is not — don’t you think they should still be paid for the additional hours worked?
Given thinking like this by the studios, the writers likely had no choice but to strike. They cannot afford to be left out of the future that is new media (they already got pretty well screwed on the TV-on-DVD phenomenon). An agreement that cuts writers out of the new-media pie is not fair, plain and simple. They deserve their piece.