Sunday, December 09, 2007

A Novice's Guide to the Writer's Strike

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You may have noticed that there are a lot more reruns on TV these days. I mean even more than usual.

That's because the Writers Guild of America, which is the union representing the writers, is out on strike. Why? you may ask. Aren't all TV writers already rich and powerful? Don't they make enough money?

To understand the answer to "why," first you have to understand one of the ways writers for TV and movies get paid. Every time a show gets shown in reruns, the writers get paid what's called a "residual."

Movie writers get a percentage when a movie is released on DVD. It's the same principle by which a singer or songwriter gets paid a little bit every time his or her song gets played on the air. Yes, even the Spice Girls. And what cut do writers get on residuals? Two and a half percent. For every dollar the studios or media conglomerates like Disney or Viacom make, the writers get a measly two and a half cents.

Enter the World Wide Web. As Internet speeds got faster, and the equipment for viewing got more sophisticated, networks began rerunning their shows online, along with various other goodies. You've probably seen the blurbs at the end of your favorite show directing you to online content at and the like.

Well, said the writers, isn't this exactly the same as a rerun? Shouldn't we get a residual on that, especially since you're running ads on these online reruns, just like on regular TV? Huh-uh, said the corporations. Because it's, uh, promotional. Yeah, that's it. Promotional. Not only do you not get your two and a half cents, you get zippo. Fuhgeddaboutit.

The corporations originally said they couldn't possibly consider any proposal having to do with online distribution because the Internet is so new. We don't know that we'll ever make money on it, they wailed. This is what is commonly described using a term that makes reference to the excrement of male bovines.

We know this because of a brilliantly put-together montage the writers put up on YouTube, which shows people like Bob Iger of the Disney Company and CEO Sumner Redstone of Viacom appearing on various business-related talk shows and practically rubbing their hands with glee at the prospect of the money to be made reusing content online.

You may have 20 million people watching "CSI" on TV and another five million watching it online, assured Les Moonves, CEO of CBS, "but we're going to get paid wherever you get it from." As the video caption following Moonves' statement dryly points out, "'We' does not include the writers of CSI."

Now, I may occasionally want to throw things at whoever the writer is on "CSI Miami" that comes up with David Caruso's cheesy one-liners, but I won't begrudge the man (or woman) fair pay for his (or her) labors.

The other reason that this "we don't know how much we're going to make on 'new media'" argument is suspect is that it's exactly the same argument the studios used 20-odd years ago when it came to the subject of home video sales. "We don't know if this VHS thing is ever going to make any money," they insisted, and the writers obligingly took an 80 percent pay cut to help grow the business.

The business grew. The pay cut stayed. Like our president says: "Fool me once, shame on -- shame on you. Fool me -- you can't get fooled again."

But wait, what about the argument that writers are already filthy rich and powerful? Obviously, people who ask this question have never heard the old Hollywood joke about the starlet who was so dumb she slept with the writer.

But the thing is, writers on movies and TV shows don't really have what you'd call steady employment. When a show finishes its run, the writer's hitting the street looking for another job, and maybe not finding one for a good long while.

The WGA estimates that at any one time, 48 percent of its members are "between jobs." And all that time, companies like Disney and Viacom and Rupert Murdoch's News Corporation (which owns Fox and other outlets) continue to rake in profits by replaying and recycling the writer's work.

And that, right there, is the heart of the matter. When someone's making billions off your creativity, it's not greedy to ask for a little slice of the pie. But it is outrageous for companies like Disney and Viacom, which probably have more cash on hand right now than most countries, to chastise anyone for being greedy.

Rupert Murdoch's compensation over the past five years was 60.5 million bucks. But I'll bet if you sat him down in front of a computer and held a gun to his head, he still couldn't create so much as a single episode of "The Simpsons."

1 comment:

Phoebe Fay said...

Actually, I think an excellent Simpson's episode would involve Rupert Murdoch with a gun to his head. He out-evils Mr. Burns.

Thanks for the clear rundown on the issue.