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Striking Distinctions

Writers Guild members picket outside NBC Studios last week. The writers and studios remain far apart on a wide array of issues.
Writers Guild members picket outside NBC Studios last week. The writers and studios remain far apart on a wide array of issues. (By Ric Francis -- Associated Press)
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By Paul Farhi
Washington Post Staff Writer
Monday, January 7, 2008

If the two sides in the deadlocked writers' strike agree on anything, it could well be this: The outcome will likely determine how screenwriters and their studio bosses will divvy up the billion-dollar spoils of their business for decades to come.

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By the platinum-plated standards of the TV and movie business, the dollars at stake over the next three years sound like mere popcorn money. The Writers Guild of America estimates that its last contract proposal, made in November, would cost Hollywood's networks and studios about $150 million through 2010 -- or less than the budget of a "Pirates of the Caribbean" sequel.

The two-month-old strike -- Hollywood's longest work stoppage in 20 years -- revolves around two questions that have long-term implications: What kinds of writers and programs should be covered by the guild's collective bargaining agreement; and how should writers be compensated when their creations are reused, especially in digital form?

The WGA represents 10,500 people who write scripts for sitcoms, dramas, talk shows and movies for major entertainment companies. Significantly, however, the guild does not represent other kinds of TV writers. Those who write for animated series, shape the story lines on reality shows and produce material exclusively for the companies' Web sites fall outside the guild's jurisdiction.

The studios -- owned by conglomerates such as Sony, Time Warner, Walt Disney, Viacom, NBC Universal and News Corp. -- have adamantly resisted the guild's attempt to organize these non-guild workers. Among the entertainment companies' concerns is that an enlarged Writers Guild membership would have even greater leverage, leaving the networks with few sources of original programming in the event of another writers' strike.

"The WGA's continued insistence on these [jurisdictional] issues was one of the big reasons that the talks reached an impasse," says Jesse Hiestand, a spokesman for the Alliance of Motion Picture and Television Producers, which represents the companies.

Because talks have been suspended since Dec. 7, no progress has been made on issues involving guild representation or compensation.

In addition to receiving upfront compensation, TV writers receive fees known as residuals after a program is rebroadcast or resold. When a network reruns a show, for example, its writer is paid about $20,000, the WGA says. Writers also get residuals on the syndication of shows to local stations or cable networks and on the sale of DVDs.

As an indication of how far apart the two sides are, they can't even agree on how much a typical TV writer makes. The producers' alliance calculates the figure at $204,000 a year, based on revenue data from the guild. But the guild says that figure distorts the picture. Some writers earn millions, it acknowledges, but for most writers, the business is feast or famine. Over a five-year period, according to the guild, the average Hollywood writer makes about $62,000 annually.

The writers are concerned that their traditional sources of compensation are threatened by changes in the entertainment industry. With a steady supply of reality programs available to the networks, scripted sitcoms and dramas aren't being repeated as often, cutting into writers' income (hit serials such as "24" and "Lost" aren't repeated at all on the networks, although repeats are sold in syndication and via DVD formats). Meanwhile, DVD sales are flattening because of such factors as market saturation and file-sharing.

Just as ominous from the writers' perspective is that they receive almost no residuals for material streamed over the Internet or on other digital platforms, such as PDAs and cellphones. Although the digital market is still relatively small -- the two sides even offer conflicting estimates on the market size -- writers fear that they will lose out on billions of dollars as digital programming booms.

"If we don't get the Internet [settled] now, if we give in, we'll never get it," says Chris Albers, a writer for "Late Night With Conan O'Brien" and a past president of the WGA-East. "Every time there's been a new technology, [the studios] have said, 'There's no [business] model, there's no money in it,' and they never reopened the issue again. But soon, there may not be reruns. There may not be broadcast TV. . . .


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