As you’ve likely heard by now, the Writers Guild of America has gone on strike, putting down their pencils to strike for an increased percentage of DVD online distribution residuals (the NYT also has a video by David Carr with interviews from the picket line). The strike has already disrupted the production of a number of late night talk shows, including The Daily Show with John Stewart and The Colbert Report (possibly giving Colbert more time to concentrate on his presidential run), and both sides are anticipating the possibility of a long holdout. While many scripted shows have compiled a number of episodes, an extended strike could result in an increase in reality television and other forms of “unscripted” “entertainment.” Which will likely send me running to my Netflix queue or the local multiplex for comfort.
It’s easy to dismiss the strikers’ demands based on the relative wealth of a few high-profile writers, but given the immense profits made by the media conglomerates, the strikers’ demands seem quite reasonable. I’ve been following the negotiations between the Writers Guild and Hollywood studios for some time now, in part because the stakes of those negotiations–compensation for DVD and new media distribution–are so significant. As this Los Angeles Times article implies, the current DVD residuals amount to approximately 4 cents for every disc sold, an incredibly small total given the revenue generated through DVD sales (a number that’s even smaller given that this amount is divided among all of the writers). The original amount, notably, was based on the relative expense of manufacturing VHS tapes, but given the sheer dominance of the DVD format (more people see films at home than in theaters), that rate now seems rather small.
There are also some important questions about how writers will be compensated for shows streamed over the Internet, and some of these questions are connected to definitions of new media. According to this ars technica post, producers are arguing that new media distribution is essentially the same as DVD distribution, while the Writers Guild, correctly in my opinion, points out that online distribution is much cheaper (and very likely to explode in the near future). While studios have continued to insist that online content be regarded as “promotional” material, thus exempting it from compensation, the online episodes of series such as Heroes and Jericho are just as much a part of the story world for fans as the episodes that are broadcast on the networks. Lots of questions here, and I think this is going to take a while to sort out.
Update: Via Atrios and Brian K. Vaughan (author of The Last Man), here’s a blog, United Hollywood, that is offering solid coverage of the strike along with some useful explanations of the writers’ demands. It looks, for example, like the main point of contention is new media, not DVDs.
Update 3: Jason Mittell also has an interesting discussion of the strike. Worth noting: he questions the claims that the industry is falling apart, that increased competition has led to increasing instability. Jason is right to point out that while the media industries are transforming, much of the competition is “internal,” that is, viewers are migrating to other networks or shows owned by the same media conglomerates.