The WGA Strike and the Death of Television

TV is a dying medium. It might not be disappearing anytime soon, but it's clearly going to be replaced by either the Internet or some sort of TV/Internet hybrid. People are getting used to watching shows when they want, be it through timeshifting using a TiVo or by downloading using iTunes or BitTorrent, and because of that broadcast TV is becoming obsolete as a delivery method. Like the music industry, the TV industry realises that their tried-and-true business model is about to be useless, and its lashing out at the wrong people in its panic. Unlike the music industry, who attacked its fans, the TV industry is attacking its own: writers. We talked to both sides to get at the root of the trouble.This WGA strike sucks, to be sure. If it goes on for more than three months (which is looking increasingly likely), pilot season won't happen, no new shows will be created, no new seasons will come back, and we'll be stuck with the dregs of reality TV for a full year. Yep, that means no last season of Battlestar Galactica, no new season of Lost, and no new episodes of The Office. It's no small thing, and not just because you'll be inconvenienced by marathons of Overweight Celebrity Chili Cook-Off Island or whatever the networks will throw up when they run out of new programming. People are losing their jobs over this; lots of people. But the WGA wouldn't be striking if this wasn't important.

Eric Appel, who's written for shows such as Crank Yankers and The Andy Milonakis Show as well as consulted for Human Giant told me that "new media is where television is going. In a few years cable is just gonna be the Internet, it's just gonna be the Internet hooked up to your TV. And unlike TiVo where you can skip the advertisements, in streaming players you're forced to sit through the ads, so the networks are making money on that, and the studios don't want to give writers any of that."

Imagine if the RIAA decided that the Internet was merely a way to promote CDs and that no songs sold online counted when paying musicians. Their argument would be that those songs sold were just to people who were checking them out and might go buy the CD later, at which point the artist would get paid. Does that make any sense to you? No? Because it's the essential argument the Alliance of Motion Picture and Television Producers (AMPTP) is making.

Here's what a spokesperson told me: "new media has proven to be an effective and cost-effective promotional and marketing tool for both films and television but there is not enough marketplace data to judge its true potential, ultimate impact on traditional media or viability as a business." Basically, they claim they don't make any money off the Internet so there's nothing to share with the writers, and since "each new month brings new ways to produce, distribute and consume media and entertainment" they don't want to agree to give writers any new media residuals.

As it stands, writers get a small percentage of revenue if a show is successful and reruns often, which is why Jerry Seinfeld drives a gold-plated flying car between his mansions in the Hamptons and Dubai. They aren't paid any residuals for new media, despite the fact that online content delivery is the future.

The problem with this logic is that if new media really didn't bring in any money, there wouldn't be a problem. The writers are asking for a percentage of profits from new media, just like they get from TV. A percentage of nothing is nothing, after all.

So what this battle basically boils down to is the producers trying to move away from a residuals system, one in which writers are paid once for their work and get nothing for creating huge hits. It'll make them a whole lot more money and writers a whole lot less. And it's not just the livelihood of writers at stake; this same issue is going to come up with actors and directors as well in the near future. It's a battle for how business will be done in the age of TV mating with the Internet, and one that'll effect the entertainment that all of us consume for the foreseeable future.

So unless you want your online entertainment to consist solely of fare such as Tay Zonday and 2Girls1Cup, you should support the WGA. They're the professionals, the people who create the entertainment that helps define our culture. And if the television industry has its way, they won't see their fair slice of the Internet pie, and that's just not right.

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