This article first ran in the 11.8.07 issue of Metroland.
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The Writers Guild of America, a labor union that represents over 10,000 television and screen writers, went on strike on Sunday. Like all labor disputes, it’s ugly and getting uglier.
The main bone of contention appears to be (surprise!) the internet. Writers typically get a big payment up front, and then residual payments when works are re-used, like when shows are re-run, or go into syndication, or are distributed on DVD. Or are put on the internet.
The problem with the internet is that no one is quite sure what the revenue model is going to be for online television content, how big the pie is going to be, or if there’s going to be a pie at all. The studios have been rushing to get their shows online in their own online environments, largely in reaction to the YouTubes of the world, where fans of the shows were independently posting episodes, and we were all watching them. The studios rushed to co-opt this organic activity for purposes of control and on the off-chance there might be some money in it. Comedy Central, for example, never would have put all the Daily Show skits online if it weren’t for YouTube users leading the way. So all of the old Daily Shows are now online, and you can watch them, at least for now, for free. Right now on the Daily Show site there’s a single ad for cough suppressant. I doubt that’s gonna pay the freight.
From reports I’ve read, the studios have told the writers they’ll share in internet revenue when there is something to share. Like, you know, “trust us.” The writers, for very good and historical reasons, aren’t particularly inclined to trust The Suits, and want some hard numbers right now. And they’re not getting them.
Complicating matters is the writers’ demands to renegotiate royalties on DVD sales, where the writers agreed some years ago to a royalty level that’s turned out to be a little low. Who knew that people were going to buy DVDs of entire seasons of mediocre sit-coms in huge numbers? As H.L. Mencken said, “No one ever went broke underestimating the intelligence of the American public.” So the writers want a bigger chunck and are vowing not to make the same mistake again buy selling low.
This isn’t, of course, an isolated problem. The conundrum of to the monetization of the internet is playing out with every type of creative work that’s capable of being digitized. And, because information wants to be free, and because the more desirable the information is, the more it wants to be free, we are in this strange vacuum right now where everything is going online in a big fat hurry, and nobody is quite sure how it’s going to get paid for.
While the writers walk the picket lines (YouTube, not surprisingly, is a pretty good place for entertaining user-created coverage of the writers’ strike) what’s available on your TV set is changing pretty fast. Talk shows and soaps were the first to go to re-runs. Sit-coms and dramas will go to re-runs within the month, as they use up new scripts (reality and game shows, which don’t need union writers, will proliferate). If the strike continues, and many are predicting it will go on for months, feature film production will grind to a halt sometime in the first quarter of 2008.
A bunch of other things are probably going to happen. For one, as studios shut down production of new shows, production and technical staffs are being laid off, and a ton of people are going to start missing mortgage and rent and car payments. This is already starting to happen, and the Writers Guild is accusing the studios of being too quick on the trigger, and creating the lay-offs unnecessarily in order to foster anti-writer sentiments among the more blue-collar segments of the production world.
Another thing is that people are going to accelerate their migration away from TV. One consequence of the last extended writers’ strike, some twenty years ago, was that television lost about 10% of its viewership, and never got it back. And this was in the dark ages, before the internet, when the leading alternatives to TV were reading, interacting with other people, and knitting. Now there is a whole world on entertainment online, networks of shows, some corporate and some entirely amateur in nature, that anyone with a broadband connection can get for free.
And people will find this stuff online, and I suspect a whole lot of them will like what they find, get hooked, and realize that hanging with, say, Ze Frank, is a whole lot more fun that watching CSI Miami.
Meantime, I really miss Stewart and Colbert. I’m Jonesin’.