by Timothy Lee

Filed Under:
writer's strike

Titanic Crew Strikes Over Deck Chair Arrangement

from the one-size-fits-all? dept

As a professional writer who mostly writes for Internet publications, the news of the Writer's Guild strike is a bit of a culture shock. There's no bloggers' guild negotiating a standard set of wages and residuals for bloggers. It's hard to imagine the blogosphere going on strike. And frankly, that's better for all of us, writers and publishers alike. The web is such a diverse and fast-changing medium that it's hard to imagine a contract that could address the diverse needs of all its writers right now, to say nothing of anticipating the future evolution of the industry.

A one-size-fits-all writers' contract made a certain amount of sense for Hollywood in the mid-20th century when it was relatively homogenous and dominated by a few large firms. But it's looking increasingly anachronistic today. Thanks to the Internet, Hollywood is on the brink of a difficult transition towards a more competitive marketplace in which a lot more people have the opportunity to get in on the action. The studios will need imagination and flexibility for the old studios to maintain their dominant position. They'll need to experiment with new technologies and business models. Given how quickly the marketplace is likely to change over the next decade, it's a little silly to expect a single industry-wide contract to fairly determine how writers will be compensated for the next few years. We don't even know, for example, if the dominant business strategy for Internet video will be paid downloads, ad-supported free downloads, or some other business model nobody's even thought of. The best compensation structure for writers will be different depending on which of these business models wins out in the end. Also, as the long tail of video content fattens, it's not obvious that it will be either possible or desirable to pay folks way down the tail using the same pay scale as the folks at the head.

If there ends up being a lengthy writers' strike (and especially if the actors and directors join the strike next year) it's only going to create a content vacuum that will be filled by small independent producers who understand how to use digital technologies to produce and distribute content on a tight budget. Something similar happened during the last strike, in 1988, when networks reacted to the shortage of writers by launching unscripted shows like "Cops" and "America's Funniest Home Videos," giving birth to the reality TV format that remains popular to this day. With products like Joost, YouTube, and Apple TV offering alternative distribution mechanisms for independent producers, a writer's strike could have even more dramatic consequences this time around.

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  1. identicon
    Jon, 5 Nov 2007 @ 3:40pm

    New media IS a problem

    One of the real contentions in the strike is over new media, and by the way, not a SINGLE one of the guilds yet has a contract that includes new media/digital media residuals. They all either make you use their existing broadcast (albeit low-budget) contracts or you go non-union. And a low budget contract means death for a new media project because the budgets are SO low. This is the price of the democratization of who can make media... as a whole, I think it's a good thing.

    But to compare New Media to DVD's is just plain wrong. DVD's were a physical product, with an already verifiable market (home video rentals) and distribution channel (video stores). New Media does not yet have a solid, widely used and accepted distribution channel (and isn't likely to between now and the next contract negotiation), nor a real business model yet.

    I have worked in broadcast and digital media quite a bit, including launching and renegotiating for distribution of broadcast media online with some of the new media heavyweights, and as of yet, there are NO upfront sales payments to content owners/producers or studios, only long tail backend that has yet to appear in any material sums (eg. sums that are larger than the post-production, accounting and legal overhead it takes just to get the stuff online in the first place.

    This negotiation is about to guarantee that WGA writers have no place in tomorrows world of content creation and if SAG, AFTRA and DGA follow suit, they're showing themselves to early retirement door as well.

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