in solidarity

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.

8 Replies to “in solidarity”

  1. This strike could be the end of one my favourite tv shows, but I could not support it more. The same issues exist here in Australia, and I hope that the WGA resolves in such a way to set precedence for the path of resolution here – effectively cutting off a local strike before it happens.

  2. “Supernatural” – the show has enough scripts to keep shooting until 4 Dec or so, at which point they’re out. There are rumblings, albeit somewhat in the distance, that because it doesn’t have the audience numbers of the big shows (eg, Grey’s Anatomy), the network may be unwilling or unable to support it through the strike (especially if it proves to be a long one).

    The irony of this strike? The writers receive no money for the dvd sales of ‘cult’ shows such as Supernatural (and Farscape, in days gone by) when such sales are consistently higher in revenue than their tv viewings, but these high-selling shows on dvd are the ones most in danger of dying off during a prolonged strike.

    I still support the WGA, though.

  3. Your post really clarified things for me. I’m mainly watching preschool and small child tv these days. It’s amazing when I see my children getting such pleasure from a show that was written in 2000 or 2004 even. I’ve never thought “who got paid to write that” – I think I was naively imagining the writers are paid in one lump sum, but who would know that Loonette the Clown or Blue’s Clues would be seen years later, and in so many ways. So residuals makes sense from that perspective. Thanks for this.

  4. Supernatural — isn’t that the one that had Denny Duquette as the father, now and then? Okay, so his name is really Jeffrey Dean Morgan, but he’s really nice to look at, whatever you call him.

    I will cross my fingers for Supernatural. Also for Life and a number of other fledgling shows that may not survive.

    Pam — There really isn’t any reason for people to understand how residuals work, at least not until something like this strike comes along. Every day the list of things people couldn’t possibly know gets longer. There’s just too much going on in the world. But I’m glad the information was useful. I needed to share it.

  5. Rosina – yep, that would be the one. Jeffrey Dean Morgan, one of the best reasons to watch tv. Sondra Rhimes is apparently writing a show just for him, in which I think he plays a war photographer. Can’t wait till that one premieres.

  6. “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. ”

    Sorry, Rosina, but someone must stand up for the lawyers. Behind every lawyer, there is a client. In this case, as in most, the clients–CEO’s and other executives–are the ones “keeping all the money.” Not that the lawyers don’t make a good living working for them–but they don’t get the pot of gold.

  7. Marty — are you a lawyer, perchance?

    My guess is that this crew of lawyers get pretty hefty bonuses if they can pull off this kind of thing. So they are not disinterested or objective parties. The more they keep for their employers (at the expense of the creative types) the more they take home.


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