The TV Writers Strike: Reverb into Newsrooms?

The average couch tuber probably isn’t tracking this TV writers strike too much. Not beyond fretting over an early end to Heroes and no new Daily Shows. Beyond that the affected "workers," a lot of smart-ass Bimmer-driving West L.A. espresso sippers, are never going to win an outpouring of empathy from the people who obsessively consume their programming.

I’m not going to argue that this is the moral equivalent of the Harlan County coal miners, but as so many businesses, media in particular, try to find a way to monetize the Internet, this particular strike seems likely to set some important precedents for a lot of industries, possibly even newspapers.

For a short (and funny) primer on the basics of the TV strike, check out this video posted yesterday by The Daily Show writers.

The central claim is this: On one hand a media tycoon like Viacom’s Sumner Redstone, (Viacom owns Paramount Pictures, CBS, MTV, Blockbuster video, etc.), will sue YouTube for $1 billion based on its perceived effect — financial — to his value, while simultaneously arguing that there isn’t enough value on the Net to justify sharing …. ANYTHING … brought in via new technologies with the people who created it.

No one knows for sure what tomorrow will bring, but the TV writers are smart enough to know that unless they nail down every possibility today they will continue seeing zip tomorrow … as billions in value pile up around the feet of the Redstones, and Rupert Murdochs of the planet.

Ron Moore, showrunner for the series, Battlestar Galactica gave an interview offering a tangible example of how the media empires are overplaying their hand.

He says:

"Fundamentally this is about the internet, and this is about whether
writers get paid for material that is made for the internet or if
they’re paid for material that is broadcast on the internet that was
developed for TV or movies.

"I had a situation last year on Battlestar Galactica where we were asked by Universal to do webisodes, which at that point were very new and ‘Oooh, webisodes! What does that
mean?’ It was all very new stuff. And it was very eye opening, because
the studio’s position was ‘Oh, we’re not going to pay anybody to do
this. You have to do this, because you work on the show. And we’re not
going to pay you to write it. We’re not going to pay the director, and
we’re not going to pay the actors.’ At which point we said ‘No thanks,
we won’t do it.’"

"We got in this long, protracted thing and eventually they agreed to
pay everybody involved. But then, as we got deeper into it, they said
‘But we’re not going to put any credits on it. You’re not going to be
credited for this work. And we can use it later, in any fashion that we
want.’ At which point I said ‘Well, then we’re done and I’m not going
to deliver the webisodes to you.’ And they came and they took them out
of the editing room anyway — which they have every right to do. They
own the material — But it was that experience that really showed me
that that’s what this is all about. If there’s not an agreement with
the studios about the internet, that specifically says ‘This is covered
material, you have to pay us a formula – whatever that formula turns
out to be – for use of the material and how it’s all done,’ the studios
will simply rape and pillage."

If you missed it, Damon Lindelhof, co-creator/writer of NBC’s Lost, wrote an Op-Ed piece in last Sunday’s New York Times, a key assertion of his was this:

"Twenty percent of American homes now contain hard drives that store
movies and television shows indefinitely and allows you to fast-forward
through commercials. These devices will probably proliferate at a
significant rate and soon, almost everyone will have them. They’ll also
get smaller and smaller, rendering the box that holds them obsolete,
and the rectangular screen in your living room won’t really be a
television anymore, it’ll be a computer. And running into the back of
that computer, the wire that delivers unto you everything you watch? It
won’t be cable; it will be the Internet."

He adds:

"My show, Lost, has been streamed hundreds of millions of times
since it was made available on ABC’s website. The downloads require
the viewer to first watch an advertisement, from which the network
obviously generates some income. The writers of the episodes get
nothing. We’re also a hit on iTunes (where shows are sold for $1.99
each). Again, we get nothing.

If this strike lasts longer than
three months, an entire season of television will end this December. No
dramas. No comedies. No Daily Show. The strike will also prevent any
pilots from being shot in the spring, so even if the strike is settled
by then, you won’t see any new shows until the following January. As in
2009. Both the guild and the studios we are negotiating with do agree
on one thing: this situation would be brutal."

With talk that a long strike, relegating viewers to 52-week runs of Dog the Bounty Hunter and Tila Tecquila (and worse) could do for internet "programming" what the 1988 writers strike did for cable programming this Los Angeles Times piece, with a quote from Twin Cities-based media guru, John Rash, lays out the consumer conundrum. In short, pulp TV junkies though we may be, most of us have been spoiled by the production values of scripted television.

Personally, I’ve got a stack of unwatched DVDs six feet high, college basketball will soon be in high gear and I can happily spend months without a fresh episode of Two and a Half Men.

But the somewhat out-of-left field relation to newspaper writers is not so much that Katherine Kersten deserves a cut of every dollar Avista Capital Partners might make re-packaging her "Worst of the Flying Imams" columns for dowloading, but rather the pressure to add blogging and other web-related work to the existing job description … without additional compensation.

It goes without saying that there aren’t more than a half dozen writers at either paper with the leverage to demand more compensation for anything, even if they agreed to spit polish the publisher’s car. But the point is … the future, man.

The Pioneer Press recently wrapped a new contract with Dean Singleton’s Media News group and Guild officer/reporter Alex Friedrich says discussions of additional duties were pretty much brushed away in the rush to conclude negotiations quickly.

"There is no new language in the contract that forces us provide any new work for the web," says Friedrich. There was also no discussion of anyone getting paid more for blogging and taking pictures, etc.

Friedrich says the Guild made the point that they see a need to "get this thing laid out" in the not -too distant future, but that it just didn’t happen this time around.

"Our big thing," he says, "is what ‘What are we going to judged on?’ All of us recognize that things are changing, and I know I don’t mind taking a picture. But I want some assurance that I won’t be dinged if it takes time away from my main job."

The bet here is that, win or lose, the TV writers will establish precedents for a lot of other "creative" industries.