2/21/08

Did striking Writers Guild really win?

After one hundred days and a half a season of vapid, boring television, the writers' strike is over. This is a time to celebrate. The late-night shows were the first to make on-air use of new newly emboldened writers. On the Colbert Report, Stephen (who only pretends at being vapid) even pulled a rare move by honoring someone other than himself and admitting he relied on his writers. It was a glorious celebration, leaving one to think the strike was an unmitigated success for the wordsmiths.

The truth, however, is a bit more complicated, and buried in the subtext.

The strike started over a dispute about digital revenue. The writers wanted a slice, and the networks refused with the absurd excuse that because they don't know exactly how much money can be made off the Internet, the networks cannot offer Writer's Guild of America (WGA) members anything. That's a bit like the networks saying they won't pay the writers of a particular new show anything until they know how much revenue the show will take in. And even after profits are tallied, the writers aren't guaranteed their share. It's a good thing more workplaces don't apply this policy--it's blatantly unfair.

What writers won

On February 12 the WGA East negotiating committee struck a tentative deal with the networks that has since been ratified by the guild's general membership. The deal gives writers a chunk of Internet revenue.

For the first two years of the contract, writers will receive a maximum flat fee of $1,200 for "new media" content. After two years, the writers will receive checks for 2 percent of gross profits. This is a pretty good win for the WGA, and an improvement on the dismal gains made during the 1988 strike for cable syndication profit sharing.

What writers lost

What did the writers lose? First, their revenue gains were de-clawed. The agreement includes the provision that writers will receive no online money from advertising for the first 17 to 20 days--you know, when most people will download a popular show.

The writers also lost another battle. Wanting to make their influence more powerful, the WGA tried to get writers for animated television and reality TV unionized. But they gave that demand up, making it harder for a more effective strike down the road.

Because of the strike, networks were legally able to drop a lot of new show development deals with writers. These are comparatively high-income jobs that WGA members will now have to find again.

So there are not only more writers, but because of reality TV's strike-driven surge, there is less scripted television. You don't need to be an economics major to spot the consequences.

Some of these extra reality shows will defiantly garner good ratings, until their inevitable Who Wants to Be a Millionaire-like fall from grace. And that could take two or three seasons. It's a little like a squirrelly man (or woman) going up against a mammoth athlete in a series of feats of strength.

Sure, the muscled wonder will probably be dumb, but their stature alone makes up for their uninspired intellect. Basically, writers are now contestants against the American Gladiators of reality TV, trying to claim the grand prize of work.

So no one really "won" the strike. That is, except the viewer, who will see the sometimes-belated return of their favorite shows. Or maybe not.

NBC's Friday Night Lights is reportedly in trouble, a clear loss for the viewer. And Bionic Woman won't be back, a clear win for the viewer. Here is a rundown on the tentative return of some shows.

Shows returning this spring:

30 Rock
My Name is Earl
CSI (all possible varieties)
Grey's Anatomy
Ugly Betty
The Office

Shows returning this fall, or at some point after:

Chuck
Big Love
Pushing Daisies
Heroes

(dailyvanguard.com)

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