In case you haven’t heard (and honestly, if you’re not reading about it online, you probably haven’t heard much), the Writers’ Guild of America (WGA), the guild that represents several thousand film and television writers, went on strike this week. The key issue prompting this strike has to with residuals, the royalties paid to writers, and other creative talent, for subsequent runs of their material. Their current residual system is flawed in two ways: DVDs only count at the same lousy rate they’ve had for VHS tapes for twenty years, and internet-distributed content isn’t eligible at all for residual payments.
This WGA video explains this all in just under four minutes:
The strike is a critical rupture (or at least could be; it’s too early to tell) in the ongoing story of TPTB (i.e., the corporations that run the networks and studios; you know, “Hollywood”) extracting more and more value out of the content they own while sharing less and less and none with the people who actually create it. In Rerun Nation, I described how the TV rerun moved from the margins of industrial logic to its very center over the space of a few years in the 1950s. At the time, as the video above points out, writers (and actors, for that matter) received no residuals on these reruns, which were often successfully, and extraordinarily profitably, syndicated for years and decades in the US and across the world. I closed that book with a chapter on the DVD box set, which has had a similar industrial impact in the 2000s — basically creating a new market for television reruns — with a similar outcome for writers (not nothing, but very minimal residuals).
Since 2005, we’ve had another revenue front open up: the internet. Yes, mucho material was available online long before this, but that year marked the beginning of the official distribution of full-length episodes online, via iTunes, or the networks’ own websites (a practice that has moved from “experimental” to “standard operating procedure” in less than two years). Apparently, though, if we’re to believe the networks and studios (via their representative organization in this conflict, the Association of Motion Picture and Television Producers (AMPTP)), this content is “promotional,” and thus aren’t really content. Sure, they still sell advertising on them, as they do when they run over the air, and yes, they make a lot of money on that advertising, but don’t call them “content,” because then they might have to pay the people who made the “content.” Which they don’t, at the moment.
So, basically, the strike is about one thing: who gets to profit from the creative work, short-term, long-term, and in-between.
In this regard, it’s been very interesting to see how the sides are waging their war over the past several days. The WGA has done a (mostly) masterful job with relentless pickets at key locations in LA and NY, peppered by celebrities and members of other, supportive unions (SAG, IATSE, and the Teamsters, among others, to various degrees), and culminated (thus far) with the massive demonstration today at Fox’s corporate HQ, which was the largest picket in the history of the guild. As public spectacle, it’s working, except that none of the major TV news organizations are covering it much (hmm, I wonder why not…?) The AMPTP, on the other hand, has no discernible PR strategy, but perhaps they reason that, like Springfield’s Mr. Burns, they don’t need one when they’ve got money and lawyers and the networks themselves. Thus far, they’ve both rattled their swords and tried to blow off the whole thing, which suggests to me that they really are pretty freaked out about where this could be headed (even beyond the virtually inevitable abortion of the 2007-08 TV season).
Along the way, there are some equally compelling side narratives. Let’s call them the “B stories” of the strike for now, but keep an eye on them as the
season strike goes on.
The showrunners — the hybrid writer-producers who oversee the creative aspects of TV series and who (technically at least) straddle both sides of this fence — have thus far pledged nearly 100% support for the strike, though they split on how far to go to support it. Some have advocated a complete shutdown of their productions, while others argue that they should honor their contractual obligations for at least the episodes that have already been scripted or shot. Nikki Finke’s report and speculation about the showrunners’ dilemma is a must-read, as is her ongoing reportage on the strike in general. My current work is focused on the role of the television “author,” and the legal and cultural role of these particular “authors” at the moment is fascinating. Here’s several of them at their own picket, at Disney on Wednesday:
Meanwhile, tensions between the striking writers and below-the-line workers are simmering. As is often the case in management’s strategies of divide-and-conquer, many crew members and office staffers have been laid off already. Thus far, the other unions have been officially sympathetic, but there’s a lot of class conflict apparent in this divide, with electricians calling writers greedy millionaires on blog comments. Creative labor takes a lot of specialized labor, and if the WGA is to successfully wage this war, they’ll need the other guilds and unions, and the thousands of now-unemployed technical workers, on board as well.
Over here on the interweb, fans have burst into action, pledging their support, but not quite knowing how to support the writers (although fans in LA and NY have walked the pickets, and fed the picketers). The debate here is about strategy (should I not watch at all? should I only watch the episodes that are already out? who should I write?), but reveals an ongoing development of the fan/producer relationship, which I wrote about, with Cynthia Walker, here. How fans rally around particular writers (and the cult of Joss is thus far the one to really watch), and what impact that has, could be a key development of this whole ordeal.
Lastly, speaking of the internet, there’s the Big Question: can we bury the networks? This post, at the strike’s main info site, articulates well what many are feeling: Google and/or Apple could totally pwn the networks!!!11!1! What’s most striking to me about the post and its comments, and similar sentiments elsewhere, is how variable the knowledge and sentiment is about the ostensibly inevitable merging of the internet and TV. Like the money itself that’s “not” made from online TV distribution, the ability of internet giants to take over the industry is a matter of considerable mystery, fear, hope, and debate. That said, the networks and studios are clearly at least projecting desperation, doing all they can to sustain their economic and cultural relevance.
All in all, what’s possibly at stake, if this really blows up, is nothing less than the entire economic logic of Hollywood. Who gets paid for what and how and when they get paid. When audiences fragment, when distribution costs can be factored out, when content moves to multiple platforms, and when each and every metric for figuring out just what’s going on is under fire…something’s got to give.
We may not have new TV shows for a while, but this is better.