The Writer's Strike

I've been following Ken Levine's blog every day for a few months now and his recent posts concerning the writer's strike have been very informative and, at times, quite entertaining. This former writer for MASH, CHEERS, and THE SIMPSONS among many other shows wrote a parody about the ongoing writer's strike involving a conversation between Mr. Burns and Smithers which you can read here.

Normally, I don't believe in unions and don't like the idea of strikes for a number of reasons which are really beyond the scope of this post (I always wanted to use "beyond the scope" in a sentence). However, I really do support the writer's cause in this situation. The world is changing everyday regarding the various mediums in which we receive our information and entertainment but the current agreement between the television studios and writers ignore all of these new revenue streams. Yes, they should have had a clause in their contract about "formats not yet invented" but that doesn't mean one can't be added. As it stands now the writers aren't being compensated at all for episodes they wrote that are being sold on iTunes or over Xbox Live or on NetFlix. And when they are compenstaed, it's in the form of an insult. Take this example from an article Levine wrote for the Toronto Star.

I got a cheque recently from American Airlines. A royalty cheque. For the past several years as part of their "inflight entertainment"American Airlines has been showing episodes of Cheers, M*A*S*H and Becker that I wrote along with episodes of Everybody Loves Raymond, Frasier and Dharma & Greg that I directed. Considering the number of flights and years I'd estimate they've shown my shows 10,000 times. My compensation for that: $0.19. That's right – 19 cents (American, so it's even less in Canada.) I figure at that rate, in 147 years I'll be able to buy one of their snack boxes.

An episode of Frasier I wrote is out on DVD. I make nothing. The script is included in a book. I make zilch. Soon you'll be able to download and watch it on your iPod or iPhone at IHOP. The only one who won't make money is "i".

I don't work on royalties. That might sound strange to some, but given the special circumstances involved in writing videogame strategy guides, this actually makes sense (i.e. the books sell based on the game, not the author). However, if I did I would damn well want to be compensated for any electronic versions of my books that sold in PDF format. Sounds fair, right? Well, not according to the television producers. Despite climbing over one another to get their shows features on iTunes and other electronic distribution channels, they're all acting as if none of these things make them money. That they're actually losing money by making previously aired episodes available for download at $1.99 an episode or in DVD box sets. I'm no businessman, but I'm pretty sure the phrase "revenue streams" has the word revenue in it for a reason. Of course, they're making money from these things; it was the truckloads of DVD box-sets people bought that got Fox to bring THE FAMILY GUY back from the dead.

The media coverage I've seen and heard is all making it sound like the writers on strike are a bunch of rich primadonnas afraid that they won't be able to make next month's payment on their condo in Bali. They make it sound like the rich are striking against the super-rich. Maybe for a few of them like Levine, that's true -- although I doubt it since Levine jumps at a moment's notice to still occasionally announce Mariners baseball games when someone calls in sick. Nevertheless, the idea sitcom writers are rich is absurd. Have you ever seen how many writers are listed in the credits for a single sitcom? Or for a show like SNL? These people aren't rich, by any stretch. Not to mention their job requires them to live in the LA area which is not cheap. And it's not greed to occasionally stand up and ask for what is rightfully yours. But you won't hear that on the news because the news works for the networks which own the shows the writers are striking against.

As it stands now the networks aren't even looking to come to the bargaining table. And you know why? Because they know the public has no taste and will watch anything put in front of them. Am I wrong? If so, then please tell me how BIG BROTHER is still on the air. Get used to a lot of reality TV folks, because it's cheap to make, requires no script, and, like photos of Parasite Hilton, it sells.

Support the Writer's Guild of America and turn away from reality TV. Besides, it's not like there are any likeable teams on AMAZING RACE this season, anyway...


Eric said...

Doug, I would like to raise the alternative viewpoint. These professional writers are well-paid for their work, and the work product should belong to their employer. It is the employer taking the risk whether or not any given show makes a profit or suffers a loss. The entertainment industry, like venture capital, runs on hits. These hits have to provide the profits to recover all the costs for the money losing productions and then some. There are many more losers than hits. So if a studio/network has to pay out bonus money/royalties to writers, they need to raise profits.

An alternative business model is independent writers selling scripts on a per-view basis, sharing the risk with the studios. This is how authors make a living, and few authors ever strike it rich.

I'm not saying the current system of entertainment is entirely fair, and I think the disparity between the income for those in front of the camera vs. those behind the camera is as inequitable as the difference between the CEO and workers in most public companies.

Doug Walsh said...

Thanks for writing, Eric.

By and large, your thoughts echo the ones I originally had as the strike was getting underway. It was only after I thought more about it that I changed my opinion to the one I wrote about last night.

I do think in situations in which the commercial success of the written text relies so heavily on so many other people -- as it does here with the sitcom writers and myself with my videogame strategy guides -- that the ideal method of payment is a lump sum. Guarantee enough money up front for the job, let the studio/publisher own the work and sit back and let them live and die with the finished product. And if it's a success, let them duplicate it in as many formats as possible. After all, the studio's success only breeds more opportunity for the writers. I get this, after all it's BradyGames' success over the years that keeps me gainlfully employed.

I think the parallel between what I do and the tv writers is very strong. The retail success of my books rely on the strength of the game and the publisher's ability to get it prime shelf-space in the major retail outlets. The success of a sitcom writer's script relies on their words, for sure, but even moreso on the actors and the television slot it airs in.

The problem for the writers is that they are not employees of the studio. They are for-hire contractors who provide their own benefits and who have to pitch ideas and essentially "audition" just like the actors do. They aren't paid in lump sump for their work, but are instead paid each time the show airs. These writers make a large part of their money, from what I understand, off their shows airing in sindication. The problem is that iTunes and in-flight entertainment has replaced sindication now. If writers like Levine should get a check each time USA network runs an old MASH episode, shouldn't he also get a small percentage of each iTunes sale?

There is a big risk for studios and yes indeed, there are far more stinkers out there that get cancelled than become a hit. For every CSI or The Simpsons, there are dozens of shows that never make it to sweeps week. But when these shows fail, the executives may lose a portion of their bonus or, perhaps, their stock portfolio takes a hit. On the other hand when the shows fail, the writers end up waiting tables at Bennigans. So, I'm not so sure the risk is entirely on the studio.

My understanding is that the studios like paying the writers on royalties for exactly this reason: that they don't have to pay them to hang around when a show fails. They want them to work for royalties. And if that is the case then they really need to be paid for the new ways in which these shows are distributed.

Or move to a lump-sum work-for-hire situation like I have. That way you don't have to worry about how successful the work is. And trust me, I've written guidebooks for some pretty bad games over the years. :)

Anyway, thanks again for writing.