What's on the Line In the Writers' Strike

Writers picket Monday outside NBC Studios in Burbank, Calif.
Writers picket Monday outside NBC Studios in Burbank, Calif. (By David Mcnew -- Getty Images)
By Harold Meyerson
Wednesday, November 14, 2007

In its initial stages, the strike of television and screenwriters has generated so much lighthearted copy you could conclude, wrongly, that it's fun for the whole family. On one entertainment news Web site, 3,000 "Battlestar Galactica" cultists, in Los Angeles for their convention, have pledged to join the picket line at Universal Studios on Friday. And on a site for striking writers for David Letterman's show, I read that before talks broke down "both sides briefly agreed that Marie Osmond is fabulous in this season's 'Dancing with the Stars.' " Samuel Gompers, meet Shecky Greene.

But even a gag-writers' strike can be serious business, as Leno, Letterman, Stewart and Colbert can attest. In fact, the writers' strike is really about whether collective bargaining can withstand the creation of new media on which entertainment can be seen -- or, more accurately, whether it can withstand the studios' efforts to block writers from bargaining collectively when their work is shown on or through new media.

"New media" is a catchall term for the Internet, digital broadcast channels and wireless systems such as cellphones. Not all made-for-big-screen content plays well on small screens, of course: "Lawrence of Arabia," I fear, would lose something if viewed on my cell, even if my mother didn't call during the attack on Aqaba. But already television programming is recycled through the Internet to be viewed on computers. On many networks' Web sites, recent episodes of current series are there for the watching. Within a couple of years, the technogeeks tell us, instead of having a cable box on our televisions, our TVs will be hooked up directly to the Internet, which will deliver all the new shows to our HDTVs.

How much this will add to the gaiety of nations is anybody's guess.

The problem for the people who write the shows is that, at present, the studios aren't bound to pay them anything for material that goes out on the Internet, and the studios are pretty much trying to keep it that way.

"Our current bargaining agreement doesn't give us jurisdiction over content written for new media," says Tony Segall, general counsel of the Writers Guild of America West. A side letter appended in 2001 to the guild's contract with the studios exempted the studios from having to bargain with the union over the paychecks of writers turning out material for the Web, which the insufficiently futurist leadership of the guild (since replaced) apparently viewed as a distant prospect.

Last year, however, NBC-Universal asked the writers of "The Office" to create two-to-three-minute "webisodes" of the series for the Internet. Though the webisodes drove up the show's ratings, the studio paid the writers nothing for their work. The writers, not surprisingly, ceased their webisode writing; the guild sought to negotiate for them with NBC-Universal and got nowhere fast; and the issue of the writers' right to bargain collectively for Internet work became the crux of the writers' conflict with the studios.

The day before the strike began, the studios offered the guild jurisdiction over writing on the Internet that is related to existing scripted dramas. Their offer wouldn't cover the streaming of Letterman's Top Ten list. It wouldn't cover any material originally written for Internet delivery, a category that in a few years may encompass all new shows.

Segall acknowledges that devising a contract for new media is conceptually challenging. Since nobody knows how much revenue will initially be produced by entertainment delivered by the Internet, the guild's position is that the contract should stipulate a percentage of Internet-show revenue, rather than a flat fee, for writers.

The guild's message is: "If they [the studios] get paid, we must get paid."

It's a flexible formula, but the studios are thus far holding out for a contract that will cripple the guild's ability to bargain for flexible, rigid or any formulas at all.

Nations with more high-tech economies than our own, such as the Scandinavian states, have upgraded technology and increased productivity in ways that have enhanced, rather than diminished, the bargaining power and lives of their workers. In the United States, by contrast, our corporate elites, sometimes using technological innovation as a pretext for their power grabs, have destroyed workers' bargaining power and kept for themselves almost all the revenue from technologically driven productivity increases. The picketers at Paramount and Disney may look to be a chorus line of wise-asses, but their struggle is a deadly serious test of whether any American workers retain the clout to strike a deal with the unchecked greed that is the modern American corporation.


© 2007 The Washington Post Company