This Week's Attitude
By Neil S. Friedman
If you tuned in to hear fresh jokes from your favorite talk show host - be it Leno, Letterman, Kimmel, O'Brien, Stewart or Colbert - the last few nights, you soon realized by the dated material that you were watching reruns. And that may be the case for weeks, even months to come.
For the first time in almost twenty years, the Writer's Guild of America, the union that represents 12,000 men and women film and television screenwriters, went on strike at the stroke of midnight last Sunday. As labor negotiations continue, union members tote signs and walk picket lines outside network offices in two-hour shifts on the sidewalks of New York and Los Angeles. Talk shows, which tape a few hours before they are broadcast, were the first affected by the walkout, likely frustrating late night viewers and insomniacs.
What the strike basically means for couch potatoes and casual viewers is that scripted television shows, which usually shoot episodes four-six weeks ahead of airing, should continue to program original episodes until mid- to late-January, unless networks opt to play it safe and offer reruns or other program substitutes after the November sweeps period, in case the strike lingers through the winter. In about a month, daytime soap opera fans will have to find another distraction when production for those shows will stop.
Reality and sports fans have nothing to worry about, since those types of programs don't usually employ writers, they will be able to continue to offer fresh programs. As a matter of fact, scripted television series are down to 67 percent this season compared to more than 80 percent two years ago.
The last screenwriters' strike in 1988 lasted 22 weeks and reportedly cost the entertainment industry more than $500 million dollars. Back then, two months into the strike, late night icon Johnny Carson took matters into his own hands and began writing his own opening monologue. If the strike prevails, it'll be interesting to see if Leno, Letterman and Kimmel hit the keyboards a few months from now and follow in their predecessor's footsteps. And this time, a strike of an equal duration could cost the entertainment industry twice as much or an estimated $1 billion.
Though I don't flatly endorse all labor unions, because their officials can sometimes be self-serving and don't always function for the benefit of members, as a writer - albeit without a union - I support the grounds for the strike. The essence of the walkout is the writers' demand for a fair share of the money being reaped from productions being distributed with new technologies - primarily residuals (a payment made to the creator of work for subsequent showings or screenings of it) for sales of DVDs and Internet downloads. Producers are at odds with the union over the amount of residuals the writers are demanding. Naturally, they want to offer less and negotiators are asking for more. One union official said that while most screenwriters are paid well, about half of some writers' earnings come from residual payments.
In the last 20 years, as entertainment technology has evolved, it has provided a variety of new outlets where productions can be marketed. When television exploded in the 1950s, networks relied heavily on old movies because little original programming was available for the emerging viewing audience. Screenwriters soon demanded residuals for the work they created and were merely reimbursed for theatrical presentations. When producers began making advertising profits for those movies on television, the writers wanted a piece of that pie.
A similar situation occurred when videocassettes emerged, which prompted the 1988 strike. A deal was eventually negotiated. Today, the situation is comparable to that dispute, as DVDs have overtaken videotapes and the Internet is a popular source for movies and television shows. This time writers want a better deal than the stingy one negotiated back then.
Why shouldn't an individual, whose hard work provides the basis of a production, be adequately rewarded when it is marketed with fresh technology? Don't the industry's top performers' salaries keep rising as box office receipts soar? Writers deserve equitable rewards.
Directors direct, actors act, while stagehands and other production members participate in putting together crucial pieces of a movie or television show. But where would they be without a script?
The birth of any movie or television program begins with an idea that is ultimately transformed into a script for a director and the cast. A writer toils at his/her profession as words flow from the creative mind onto the computer monitor. When that completed work is transformed into an entertainment production, the writer deserves to be suitably compensated - over and above the original earnings - whenever it is developed for another technology.
Incidentally, the outcome of the writers' strike will likely affect the next labor negotiation for producers, who can expect a confrontation next summer when the contracts for the Screen Actors Guild expires.
While producers are financially at risk for movies and television programs, writers should be compensated when profits from their products increase as new sources for sales become available.
After all, without scripts there would be precious little stuff to watch - and a lot less of the write stuff.