Published in The College Hill Independent on November 8, 2007
This week, late-night shows like Conan and The Daily Show became the first to be affected by a Writer’s Guild of America strike. Writers walked out on Monday after negotiations with the Alliance of Motion Picture and Television Producers broke down. The Daily Show and others like it rely heavily on scripted material written each day. Without new material, the shows blacked out and immediately went into reruns.
Tensions between the WGA, which represents television, film and radio writers as well as playwrights, and the AMPTP have been high during negotiations over the past several months. The biggest issue is payments to writers for work that is distributed through so-called ‘New Media’ avenues: downloads, streaming videos and video on-demand.
“We think in five years the delivery system for TV shows is going to be all digital, all through the computer, and it’s important to lock in residuals,” Richard Sweren, co-executive producer and writer for Law and Order, told the Independent. Sweren says that at the moment, writers are paid no residuals for work not exclusively intended for New Media. Residuals are payments a writer receives each time his or her work is re-broadcast, and in an industry where periods of unemployment are common, they can be an important safety net.
“Rather than address our members’ primary concern, the studios made it clear that they would rather shut down the town than reach a fair and reasonable deal,” Patric Verrone, president of the Writer’s Guild of America West, said in a press conference. “The companies are seeking to take advantage of new technology to drastically reduce the residual income that sustains middle-class writers and keeps them in the business. Their proposals would destroy the very pool of creative talent that is the basis of their immense revenues and profits.”
“Notwithstanding the fact that negotiations were ongoing, the WGA decided to start their strike in New York,” responded AMPTP President Nick Counter in a statement on the alliance’s website. “It is unfortunate that they choose to take this irresponsible action.” The AMPTP is arguing that New Media is a new experiment and too uncertain a market to be cut into with residuals. They proposed extending the current DVD model for residuals to New Media as well.
The last major writer’s strike to occur was in 1988 and took place over VHS and DVD residuals when the technology was first emerging; it remains a sore spot for many writers. “We got screwed on DVDs. DVDs are over, we got burned,” Tony Gilroy, the writer and director of Michael Clayton, told the Independent. “Come back in five minutes and DVDs are going to be what 8-track tapes are now.” Gilroy is a second-generation member of the WGA (his father is playwright Frank Gilroy), and he remembers striking in 1988. Gilroy said that the production companies exploited divisions within the union in that strike to force an unfavorable deal over DVD royalties. “They pitted the TV writers against the soap writers against the feature writers and balkanized us.”
Gilroy related seeing his daughter and her friends watching Zoolander and episodes of Lost on their video iPods. Twenty years ago, producers were able to convince TV writers that DVDs didn’t concern them and were an issue only for screenwriters, but this is no longer the case. “Everyone who knows what’s really going on knows that this is the most unified that this guild has been in its entire history,” Gilroy said.
The agreement that was reached on DVD residuals is widely viewed among writers as unacceptably low. The prevailing idea at the time was that writers would accept a low residual in order to allow the market for home video and DVD to grow. However, as the market grew and costs of production went down, the percentage of the profits that writers received remained the same. Gilroy says that he receives three cents for every DVD of his movies that is sold. For a TV writer working in a group, the figure could be much smaller. The WGA wants to make sure that they don’t make the same mistake again, especially since the majority of writers are currently not being paid any residuals at all for their work in New Media.
“It all seems so basic to me. If you sell content a writer creates, you give them the residuals. That’s how it’s always been,” says Sweren. “But now they’re just not doing that. I don’t understand their position philosophically.”
The 1988 strike lasted five months and cost the industry an estimated $500 million. As has been widely reported in the media, if this strike continues for several weeks, the TV season could be significantly disrupted. Most shows already have several episodes filmed or at least scripted, but studios will have to decide whether to delay the debut of new shows or risk airing only partial seasons of shows like Lost or 24, which could produce a decline in viewer loyalty. A more serious effect of a prolonged strike would be the toll on out-of-work writers. “I have money saved, I know I’m not going to the soup line, but not everyone is in that position,” said Sweren.
Gilroy agreed. “I was wiped out in ’88,” he said. “It took me three years to recover from that strike, and we lost. It’s a very different attitude now than I’ve ever experienced.”
“The one thing that everybody knows is that there’s more money out there than there’s ever been before…. The trickiest part is making sure you don’t get ripped off,” Gilroy said. “When everything else is pulled aside, there’s one issue and it’s about new technologies and it’s about how writers are going to get paid for their work and their technologies in the digital age.”