Monday, November 05, 2007

Writer's Guild v. Alliance: Is Resistance Futile?

The recently-announced strike by the Writer’s Guild of America is pitting the creative talent of those who write for television and movies against the Alliance of Motion Picture and Television Producers. (Alliance – as in “Borg Alliance”? Hmm.) The writers want a piece of the revenues that are generated from digital use of their work, including revenues from the Internet, mobile phones, and other “new media”. (The electronic version of the Wall Street Journal carried a story on this for November 6, 2007, by Sanders, Dana, and Schechner.) The Writer’s Guild website ( ) and the Alliance website ( both contain some information with their respective positions.

The impasse will immediately affect those late-night talk show watchers (who can still stay up that late after daylight savings time) , as tonight’s shows are expected to be in reruns. (Does anyone else find that ironic – we can’t even have a “talk show” without writers? Are the real conversationalists all out of this business?) Other shows can go on for a while on existing scripts, though the prospects of sympathetic strikes from other unions or union members who also produce or do other functions may be a problem even for these shows with preexisting material.

Some reporters, like Brooks Barnes of the New York Times, have pointed out that the writer’s guild is not like the typical union, in that there is a broad range of earnings. (See his November 5 story here: Some earn millions, many earn a modest amount that varies considerably from year-to-year. On the West Coast, 48 percent of union members are unemployed.

The earnings disparity is an interesting problem for membership. If you are unemployed, what is a strike going to cost you? Not much, unless you are on the verge of a new gig. But if you are making a lot writing for television, or if you like regular paychecks, this is costly. (A side note: I wonder who gets to vote on whether to strike? Is this a problem for the union? Why wouldn't the unemployed members strike until all members get paid a minimum amount, for example? After all, the union has negotiated for minimum prices for screenplays and televisions program scripts. Why not go further and require payments for all members if everyone gets a voice?)

But let me get back on topic. I am sympathetic to the idea that the creative genius behind a program should reap benefits from the commercial success of the program. Collective action may be an effective way to force this to happen, though it might also be possible to forego some current compensation in exchange for larger future payments. The problem, however, may be the matter of uncertainty of profits in this new market. The writers do seem to face an uphill battle in this marketplace. A couple of factors discussed below do not seem to be working in their favor.

First, as far as television is going, there are fewer programs dependent on writers. The growing reality TV market is making it possible to produce shows without much reliance on formal scripts. The Alliance website states this fact: “For the 2007/08 television season, scripted series hit an all-time low of 67% down from 81% just two seasons ago (that represents 64 of 96 series on five networks).” Thus, if writers cost too much, the producers will find a cheaper way to make programming. Or should I say, the producers will find a way to make cheap programming, or cheapen programming. (By now you get my drift - I am no reality TV fan.)

Second, digital downloading and other usages of television and other media is still slow to catch on. In the music business, digital media is changing the entire business model, where profits from CDs and from music sales are being displaced. For movies, the commercial market for downloading has been slow to emerge. (The alliance website has an article from Variety on this topic that is quite interesting.) Thus, until someone figures out how to make money in a new medium, the powers that be are probably not willing to give away part of the revenue stream to the writers. (Query whether the movie industry will face the same industry-shaking impacts from technology as the music industry has already experienced.)

Third, there is always a possibility of going outside the union for writers. If the talent is in the union, then there is a real advantage. But if talent can be found elsewhere, there is a risk here.

I don’t know who will blink first and return to the bargaining table. I certainly hope the solution is not to add more reality programming! But it will be interesting to watch the technological and commercial developments in the matter of digital transmission of television and movies via the Internet.


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