Writers Guild of America, a labor union that represents over
10,000 television and screen writers, went on strike 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 reused, like when shows
are rerun, or go into syndication, or are distributed on DVD.
Or when they 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 sitcoms 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 chunk and
are vowing not to make the same mistake again by selling low.
This isn’t, of course, an isolated problem. The conundrum
of 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 reruns. Sitcoms and dramas will go to reruns 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 layoffs 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 20 years ago, was that television lost
about 10 percent 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.
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’.
Rapp is an intellectual-property lawyer with offices in Albany
and Housatonic, Mass. He teaches art-and-entertainment law
at Albany Law School, and regularly appears as part of the
Copyright Forum on WAMC’s Vox Pop. Contact info can
be found at www.paul rapp.com. Comments about this article
can be posted at rapponthis .blogspot.com.