Hollywood writers have the upper hand in this strike

Hollywood writers have the upper hand in this strike

The Writer’s Guild of America—i.e. the people who write the TV and movie scripts—are on strike. Their most fundamental demand is that they want a share in the profits from distribution using new media of the products they have a hand in creating. While studios and networks claim that Internet distribution is making them nothing, this is contradicted by their own boasts to investors and each other that they’re raking in millions and have the potential to make even more.

This isn’t the first time Hollywood writers have gone on strike. The WGA went on strike in 1988 over the then-new media: VHS and later DVD. I recall buying at the time an original Star Trek script from David Gerrold, who was selling them on Compuserve to raise funds while he was on strike.

The old Hollywood system is a dying dinosaur and the networks and studios better figure it out before they’re just fossilized bones on display in some museum.

Anyway, I wonder if the networks and studios have made a critical error. For one thing, audiences have a more direct connection to the people who make their favorite shows than ever before. Consider, many writers and producers have blogs, make podcasts, do DVD commentary tracks. The fans know the people who write the words their favorite characters say and treat them with the same adulation they give to the actors who portray those characters. The writers and fans have a relationship that doesn’t really include the studios and networks.

For another thing, the networks have much less control over information about the strike. In the 80s, TV news meant ABC, NBC, or CBS and if you didn’t get your news there, you got in from one or two local newspapers. That model is now antiquated. Not only are there twice as many 24/7 news networks and access to the web sites of newspapers around the world, but the writers can address the people directly. The umbrella organization United Hollywood has been producing extremely professional (no, duh!), informative, and entertaining videos telling their side of the story and exposing the other side and putting those videos on YouTube where they’re getting tens of thousands of views.

There’s another danger as well for both sides, but for the networks especially. Once the last of the new episodes are gone and all that’s left on TV are reruns, pilots that didn’t make it, and reality shows, people are going to stop watching TV by droves. The fact is that people just don’t need TV to entertain themselves the way they once did. I hear all the time of people in their 20s who don’t even own televisions except to watch sports maybe. Instead they get all their entertainment online, whether through podcasts or blogs or webisodes of direct-to-Internet programming. Once those people are lost, will they come back?

And perhaps the writers and producers will discover that they don’t need networks after all. Within the next half-decade we’re going to be able to download or stream high-definition quality content direct to our computers or living-room TVs. In fact, there are private beta tests of such services even now. Why would, say, Joss Whedon need a TV network to broadcast a new “Firefly” series if he could just rent some Web servers and put it online? The cost-per-viewer for online broadcasting is much lower and he could still sell advertising.

Sure that latter scenario is a still in the future, but it’s not a distant future. In fact, sites like MySpace are already producing original dramatic series. They’re not the same as regular TV, but it’s only a matter of time.

The old Hollywood system is a dying dinosaur and the networks and studios better figure it out before they’re just fossilized bones on display in some museum. Meanwhile, in the long term maybe the best thing that could happen to the writers is that they embrace the inevitable future now. This may be the last time they ever have to go on strike against the networks and in that case we will all benefit.

  • Your right, the writers strike won’t affect me as much as it did in the past.  Sure I will be annoyed by the delay of 24 and other fine shows that will have a shorter season.  But there is so much content available on the internet that it will not bother m as much.

    But also this time we are much more familiar with the people behind the shows with their blogs and podcasts and it becomes a much more personal issue for us.

    There was a brilliant YouTube video done by some writers from the John Stewart show parodying the fact that they would sue YouTube for millions of dollars for content they say hasn’t any price for when it comes to writers.

    In the past I think people would be much more upset by having seasons delayed, but this time the tide is definitely pro-writers and the fact that they are getting almost nothing for DVD and zero from the internet is starting to get out there.  Hollywood would be happy with the idea of rich millionaire writers going on strike and the reality of largely middle class writers isn’t helping their case.

  • Do you think we can get them to strike for another few months – or maybe a year or so?

    We’ve been mostly TV free (we have a DVD player when we do want to watch something) for about 7 years now.

    Don’t miss it.

  • At the end of the day, no one’s secular work, not a baseball player, brain surgeon or TV writer’s efforts are worth more than the worker is willing to take and the employer is willing to pay.

    I can not remember the last time I watched network TV aside from sports and meaningful shows represent literally 5% (and I am being generous) of the offerings.

    I would agree that the current system is on life support and will be gone soon. In the foreseeable future, high quality stuff will just stream into the home, on a pay per view basis. Watch 24 in a literal 24 hours, or every Alton Brown episode in sequence over a month, when you want it, not when the big three or whoever wants to show it.

    But I am neutral on the strike. The “art” of TV and media needs some pruning and if this is the catalyst for the overdue house cleaning (on both sides of the table) I am all for it.The product delivered is in general poor quality and reflects poor morals, poor values and a skewed perspective.

    I do feel sorry for the majority of the professionals who are apparently underpaid for their craft, will loose their homes, loose insurance, etc. But it is they who freely choose the craft, the guild, and the pay scale.

    Get ready for a 20 episode “Survivor” winter.

  • “The product delivered is in general poor quality and reflects poor morals, poor values and a skewed perspective.”

    This is true, but the studios are as complicit in this as the writers. I don’t believe in the cliche of noble writers forced to deliver inferior product by lowest-common-denominator-loving executives, but I don’t believe that the reverse idea of writers forcing bad product upon studios is very plausible either. As far as morals go, I don’t have much sympathy for either side, but in the abstract, I think the writers have the better arguments, and the studios seem to be telling the more outrageous lies (e.g., that full episodes screened online are somehow only “promotions”).