The Writers Guild of America is the labor union that represents film, television and radio writers. They called a strike on November 5 that is still ongoing. Most people don’t know what’s at stake. They only know that Jon Stewart is missing from their lives, that there’s no new episode of The Office or anything else and won’t be, until the strike is ended.
A couple of posts ago I wrote about the coming revolution in the publishing industry, how everything is going to shift in terms of distribution and thus, power and money. For screen writers, the people who write the stories that end up on your television or on movie screens, everything is shifting right now. For them it’s all happening as we speak, because the New Media is here and it isn’t going away.
In the past, the only way to see your favorite episode of Maverick or The Brady Bunch (dog forbid) was to wait for it to be re-run. And when that episode was re-run, new income came in from the advertisers. That income was divided up among the people who had a contractual stake in the show, a group that includes the writers. So every time an episode is re-run, the actors and directors and writers — anybody who negotiated for residuals — gets paid. In practical terms this means that the show you wrote ten years ago might still be bringing in nothing at all (if it was never run, or cancelled immediately, or didn’t go into syndication) or a lot of money (if you wrote for E.R. or Buffy, for example). If any given year is a little slow and there’s not much work, you will still have the residuals from the older shows you wrote. With any luck.
All that is changing, because now you can watch the television shows you like pretty much any time; you can watch them on-line (with commercials) or you can pay for an episode or season from iTunes and burn it to dvd to watch whenever you want.*
This means, quite obviously, that the show you wrote ten years ago is bringing in money in a way not anticipated by your union at that time and therefore, is not covered by your contract. It also means that televised re-runs are slowly going away, which will dry up an important source of revenue. So there’s a new venue for the distribution of your work. You still deserve payment, but the lawyers have an excuse not to give it to you. They like keeping all the money. It’s their reason for living, figuring out how to do just that. In summary: the writers want their new contract to include language that guarantees them residuals when their work is purchased (directly or indirectly) through the internet. The networks (through their lawyers) are fighting this.
The money people begrudge the creative people every penny. You think I’m exaggerating? A quote from WGAW president Patric Verrone:
If they [the networks] gave us everything we had on the table right now, if they gave us everything we wanted—everything—and they then made a deal with the DGA and matched it, which is what they’ll do, and then they made a deal with the Screen Actors Guild and tripled it, which is typically what happens….if they did that—if they gave us everything—on a company-by-company basis they would be giving all of us less than each of their CEOs makes in a year. And in some cases, a lot less.
So you see it’s not a matter of the writers being greedy. It’s about fair play, and about survival. The night before the strike, at a meeting of the membership, Howard Gould articulated some sorry truths:
Soon, when computers and your TV are connected, that’s how we’re all going to watch. Okay? Those residuals are going to go from what they are towards zero if we don’t make a stand now. … This is such a big issue that if they see us roll over on this without making a stand- three years from now, they’re gonna be back for something else. … I might have been the most moderate one up here when we started, but I sat there in the room the first day and they read us those thirty-two pages of rollbacks. And what they wanted us to hear was that “if you don’t give us what [we] want on the important thing, we’re gonna come after you for all those other things.” But what I heard was, if we give them that thing, they’ll still come after us for those other things. And in three years, it’ll be “we want to revamp the whole residual system,” and in another three years, it’ll be “y’know what, we don’t really want to fund the health fund the way we’ve been.” And then it will be pension. And then it’ll be credit determination. And there just is that time when everybody has to see—this is one where we just gotta stand our ground.”
I like television, and I miss it. But I don’t want Jon Stewart or anything else back until this issue is settled in the writers’ favor.
You can watch Howard Gould’s full comment on YouTube, here. There are many websites that are following the strike: Variety (an especially good post today); WGA main strike new page; the LA Times Strike Info Portal Wikipedia,
It was to be expected that this would happen for the screen writers, just as it will happen for those of us who write books, but in a different way.