Striking Screenwriters

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 2: Also worth following, Jane Espenson (who has worked on Buffy, Gilmore Girls, and Tru Calling) has an interesting take on the strike.

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.

3 Comments »

  1. G Said,

    November 6, 2007 @ 1:27 pm

    I actually don’t think this situation is a big deal because most TV shows are so bad. I think it’s actually better if more reality shows are on and fewer dramas are on. People like to disparage reality shows in order to present themselves as arbiters of quality: “I know what art is and this isn’t it, so I’m to good to watch this, or if I watch it, I’m too good to actually like it.” And while I would agree that reality shows do not have artistic merit, I would say that they’re more interesting than dramas for the philosophical and visual questions they raise, for the ways in which they manipulate the concept of reality and ideas of the screen, for the often touching ways in which they show human fears and desires. Many reality shows (The Apprentice, Project Runway, Top Chef, Shear Genius, etc.) are about professionals trying to move up in the world, and these shows present ways in which people try to handle those pressures. There is much more that reality shows do that I don’t have time to describe here. Dramas on the other hand, are just cliches; they don’t offer anything new. For example, I have never seen worse acting than what is on “Grey’s Anatomy;” I don’t know how people watch that. Nothing is more idiotic escapism than “Desperate Housewives,” which is equally bad in French. (The French cannot pronounce the title; it’s hysterical to listen to them try.) While The Daily Show and The Colbert Report are good, even important shows, losing them temporarily does not seem too significant to me because they are so similar each week. A lot of interesting academic literature is getting published now about reality shows and has been published for about a decade or so, and I would hope that people gain more appreciation of this type of television. People dismiss reality shows as “not being real,” but that holds onto a conventional conception of reality that these shows are experimenting with, whether the producers intend to experiment with it or not.

  2. Chuck Said,

    November 6, 2007 @ 1:44 pm

    Yeah, I was being unnecessarily snarky towards reality TV in the post. Of course, you’re right about the issue of “quality TV” and the issues of “distinction.” There is certainly quite a bit of interesting academic literature on reality TV (I’ve even thought about writing on/teaching it), and I do like some of it, though I’ll miss Heroes, The Office, and a few other shows.

    In terms of the “reality” issue, you’re also right to question my dismissal of reality TV as unreal. Of course it is “real” in some complicated ways that have nothing to do with the relative scriptedness of the shows themselves. If you push that “not being real” argument far enough, even the most verite documentaries could be charged with “not being real,” so you’re absolutely right.

    That being said, the principle of supporting the striking writers is an important one to me, and I guess I’m willing to leverage “quality” to some extent in order to ensure that writers get their fair share of the DVD and new media pie.

  3. WGA Strike: Bring on the new new Hollywood « Derek Kompare’s Media Musings Said,

    November 10, 2007 @ 1:03 am

    [...] For more academic bloggery on the strike, see Jason and Chuck. [...]

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