In case you didn't know, the Writers Guild of America is currently on strike, something fans of Comedy Central's The Daily Show have been painfully aware of for close to two weeks. The union that represents television and feature film writers walked off the job November 5, after talks between the WGA and the Alliance of Motion Picture and Television Producers (AMPTP)--an organization representing the big media companies that employ the lion's share of Hollywood talent--broke down.
In the past, media conglomerates had leverage over the strikers; they were disciplined, controlled the media message and were in a better position to split a union where many of its members worked alone and didn't often communicate with one another. No more. A spectrum of blogs, websites and video-sharing services like YouTube have upended the traditional strike dynamic, in much the same way they have changed the way the entertainment industry does business.
The new digital expanse has "given the strikers a voice they did not have in 1988," said feature film writer John Aboud, a strike captain, referring to the last year the WGA held a work stoppage. "There is an opportunity now to take our case directly to the public with the strength, the clarity and the frequency the guild did not have even five years ago."
The sticking point for Aboud and the WGA is the digital extension of TV shows and movies, which can be viewed on everything from a cellphone to a PC. Writers want a cut of the new take, while the AMPTP has argued the studios don't know what the business of selling content over the Internet will become since it is still growing, so setting up a profit participation structure now is premature.
Aboud is a co-creator of UnitedHollywood, a blog started by WGA strike captains that includes listings, comments and video from writers and fans. One of the most popular links on the site is a clip called "Voices of Uncertainty," a mash-up of media moguls giddily talking about all the money they will make from digital extensions of their brands that's intercut with asides noting writers aren't included. "Uncertainty" has more than 175,000 views on YouTube. "Why We Fight," a primer on WGA's argument for striking, has generated 345,000 views.
"There's a conflict going on here where corporations are saying how much revenue they are making on the Internet but then claiming there is no way to monetize the Internet as a revenue stream," explained Jace, the creator of the blog Televisionary. "It's hard to say how much profit, but it is clear that there is revenue."
Jace is the pseudonymn an executive at a major media company uses on his blog, which generally covers his views on TV programming but which went black on November 12 along with twenty other TV-themed websites to show solidarity with the WGA.
Many writers have reached out directly to viewers, like CBS's Late Show With David Letterman staff, with some sites asking fans to sign petitions and call studios to show support for the WGA. After holding picketing days dedicated to their families and actors, the guild contacted fans to picket alongside writers on November 16. Public polling shows initial attempts to portray the strikers to the public as spoiled overcaffeinated millionaires have failed, with majorities siding with the writers.
Opinion only goes so far, said Damon Lindelof, the creator of ABC's Lost. He described public sentiment as "incredibly important" but a "double-edged sword. If we have public support it's good, but it's not going to move studios to the negotiating table.... I don't think the AMPTP cares what the public thinks. They only care what their stockholders think. I keep saying, 'Don't beat these guys up for wanting to make as much money as possible. That's what a CEO is supposed to do.'"
UnitedHollywood is taking the fight to shareholders, asking them to contact the media giants and bring up the disparity in message to investors and writers. The website includes a form letter to the president of California's $250 billion public employee pension fund, imploring him to engage in board activism with his media holdings.
The spread of information online has also kept writers more informed and less alienated. For decades the daily trade magazines Variety and Hollywood Reporter (considered by many writers overly sympathetic to the media conglomerates) were the definitive source for strike news, but the blog Deadline Hollywood Daily has become the unlikely upstart. The well-informed, occasionally scathing product of opinionated veteran entertainment business writer Nikki Finke, DHD has scooped the trades left and right and skewered them as part of the process.
"Everyone here is reading it," one network executive said. "Both sides of the equation are feeding her information. I take much of it with a grain of salt.... Consequently it's a wonderful place to go. It is the aggregation of strike-ness. It's a one-stop shop."
Finke, who is widely regarded as a neutral player by both sides, broke the news of a supposedly confidential meeting among the top TV writers in town, accurately reporting details within an hour that in past strikes wouldn't have become public for weeks.
"It makes you feel like you are in the know," said Lindelof, an attendee of the meeting. "If we were in a vacuum right now it would adversely affect morale significantly."
"Last weekend the WGA and AMPTP announced they would return to negotiations November 26, with Finke reporting that a group of A-list talent agents encouraged both sides back to the table. That's heartening to many, but Lindelof is quick to point out that with the stakes so high, his side cannot afford to cave."
"We know in ten years everything we produce will be on the Internet," he said. "It sucks and morale is low, but I don't see the writers taking a shitty deal."
Christopher Lisotta, the broadcast network reporter for Television Week, also writes for The Advocate and LA Weekly.
Copyright © 2007 The Nation