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.

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14 comments on this post

Matthew
Thursday, November 15, 2007, 7:51 pm (UTC -6)

You should read the full interview with Ron Moore about the strike here tv.ign.com/articles/833/833633p1.html as it has a lot more detail about exactly how NBC/Universal were screwing him over.

Also, its nothing to do with the strike, but everything to do with Ron Moore, I suggest if you haven’t that you read this (really really long) interview with him just before Galactica launched tv.ign.com/articles/444/444306p1.html

Some of the stories about what went on at Star Trek are VERY revealing.

B van Oppen
Thursday, November 15, 2007, 7:56 pm (UTC -6)

I support the strike. However, I imagine I’d feel different is BSG didn’t have episode 9 penned by the end of season 3 (which means by now they are nearing the end, most likely), combined with the airing of 4.5 in 2009, and Moore’s promise that if something were to happen (something like this), he himself would write the last episodes (which would be a great thing).

The studios need to start giving the writers what they want. I’ve heard this strike could potentially prevent the Scrubs series finale from being aired (I guess they can’t come up with something good) and instead have it come out on DVD only. That’s not good for anyone.

I’m sure there will are other situations like that, and a happy writer can do nothing but good for a show.

Stef
Friday, November 16, 2007, 3:46 am (UTC -6)

In this month’s Empire magazine here in the UK, they listed a bunch of films that the studios greenlighted (greenlit?) in a hurry to get them in before the writers’ strike. There were some very, erm, unusual, films in there.

Personally, I am looking forward to The A-Team.

I admit to not being up to date on how the writer’s pay scheme works.

If they are paid for a project, then surely they signed a contract saying they get XYZ? Are they then getting stiffed on the Z?

What are people’s feelings on actors in DVD commentaries? I know many do NOT get paid, as it is a bonus and incentive to buy the new version of the DVD. It IS promotional. But actors like Schwarzenegger refused to do commentaries unless paid. Is this a similar situation? If the writers get all their demands met, will actors then be next regarding DVD commentaries or their scenes being on the internet etc?

philadlj
Friday, November 16, 2007, 12:54 pm (UTC -6)

One could turn it around on the studio execs, and say: “Well, a lot of the work you executives do is not really seen or heard by our advertisers, and much of it could be classified as promotional work, so there really isn’t much point in paying you for…whatever it is studio executives do.”
I don’t think they’d go for it; and it’s no more or less ridiculous than what they’re asking the writers to do. Services are exchanged for compensation in this country.
Nothing is free. I appreciate the dilemma the studios are faced with , but their money-hemorrhaging has nothing to do with the writers.

AeC
Sunday, November 18, 2007, 9:18 pm (UTC -6)

If you haven’t already, check out this excerpt of an interview with Harlan Ellison. It doesn’t pertain directly to the strike, but Ellison does expound on some of the BS Hollywood writers have to wade through as only he can.

Brad
Monday, November 19, 2007, 9:16 pm (UTC -6)

Matthew, that second IGN interview you posted was fantastic. I’m sorry I hadn’t come across it before and very glad that you posted it here. It says a lot about the differences between the various Trek series; why TNG was the way it was, why DS9 was so good, and why Voy was so lackluster.

Dude
Tuesday, November 20, 2007, 9:55 am (UTC -6)

I’m a bit neutral on this.

On the one hand the writers aren’t poor, and aren’t being exploited. Strike because you think you are worth it? There are many poorly written shows out there and they get paid A LOT for this crap.

On the other hand the producers aren’t poor either, they could easily give them more money and lower costs somewhere else. Perhaps, the cast? I don’t believe they simply can’t meet the other side even half-way. And when they complain that their aren’t making money off a lot of things, then maybe they should have taken more care earlier on and not greenlight failure movies/TV shows.

In the end it might just be us viewers to lose out on the shows we do like. I won’t miss Cavemen nor Gossip Girls, but if I think about the alternives: it is even worse. Extended Deal or No Deal, more reality, more game shows, more repeats…

Matthew
Tuesday, November 20, 2007, 6:13 pm (UTC -6)

I think the problem is that there are plenty of writers who ARE poor.

Matt L
Wednesday, November 21, 2007, 3:08 am (UTC -6)

“On the one hand the writers aren’t poor, and aren’t being exploited.”

Yes, writers are ALL rich. I mean seriously, do you really believe that? Yeah, there are the big guys like Ronald D. Moore who are mostly doing this out of principle, but BELIEVE me when I say that the vast majority of writers out there are working job to job. They absolutely rely on residues in order to pay the bills between jobs.

As for not being exploited…well not being paid for work (as it was going to be in the case of the BSG webisodes) IS exploitation.

Mark
Monday, November 26, 2007, 1:03 pm (UTC -6)

If you think that BSG webisodes story is ridiculous, you should read up on The Office webisodes – they won an Emmy, and NBC wouldn’t pay the 20$ to actually get a statue for the writers.

Scott
Monday, November 26, 2007, 6:55 pm (UTC -6)

You have an excellent point, however I’m not sure you should use the current flashbacks as a good example because those are merely cut scenes that are on the Razor DVD that are not on the broadcast version.

Jamahl Epsicokhan
Monday, November 26, 2007, 11:22 pm (UTC -6)

^ Yes, I became aware of this after I wrote this. The webisodes this year are indeed simply scenes, some cut, from “Razor” itself. I am correcting the blog post.

Gatton
Monday, December 3, 2007, 10:28 pm (UTC -6)

Good god Matthew that was a long interview! But I loved it. Ron Moore was very candid and it was fascinating hearing his thoughts on his years at Trek and how the business works. Thanks for posting the links.

Mark Graves
Tuesday, December 11, 2007, 12:55 am (UTC -6)

Are you giving the writers a fare shake, there are prety good movies out there, that have been writen by these writers that have made plenty of money for the BIG WHEELS of the movie industry, I’m not a writer myself, but I’ve seen quite a few movies in my day, and have enjoyed most of them, coming wrom the well written scripts. Of course the actors play the larger role in making the movie sucessful in its coclusion, and lets not forget all of the other programing on the tube.
Reruns will get old, and the general public might stray away from their favorite programing.
You should know that it’s not healthy to prolong the strike, listen good in what the writers want, in all farness you could all come into some agreement to solve this predicament you all seemed to have fallen in to.
I’m just an average american that enjoys good programing, just a spec of dust amoung the million’s of americans waiting for this to be over.

Sincerly,
MG.

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