Why the Writers Strike Matters

When it comes to the writers strike, I have two dogs in this hunt. Maybe three. Or four, if you count my innate love of underdogs.Don't be confused by the beards, the stars carrying signs, the comedians working the late night shows without comedy, or even the cancellation this week of the Golden Globes and the threat to the Academy Awards.

This is a labor issue pure and simple, and even though television writers - those who find work - get paid very, very well compared to the rest of us, this is David and Goliath all over again.

My first dog in the hunt is personal. Back in 2000 I had a good career as a freelance journalist.

Freelancing then was conducted under the rules of the 1976 US Copyright Act. Newspapers and magazines could print a story, but the writers retained the copyright and could sell it again in ancillary markets. We didn't call them "residuals," but that's what they were.

Enter the Internet. Newspapers and magazines wanted to charge for our stories on the Web, and they didn't want share the income. Hence, they issued new contracts written so bluntly that they co-opted our copyrights in "new media," known and yet undeveloped, "throughout the universe." Leading the charge? The hallowed and "liberal" New York Times.

Freelancers went to court and actually won at the U.S. Supreme Court level. It didn't matter. The now-quaint Copyright Act had been deflated like a balloon, and in the end freelancers were forced to share their rights for no extra money.

Now we have the powerful Alliance of Motion Picture and Television Producers (AMPTP), a trade organization, playing the part of the Times. The Writers Guild of America went out on strike against them over new media rights on Nov. 5, 2007.

WGA members get residuals when their work is replayed. That may have worked well when movies opened in theaters and television shows played just a few times. But now entertainment runs on DVDs, iPods, computers, telephones and the Internet, too - actually, "throughout the universe." The writers want a cut of all the profits. The producers don't want them to have it.

In 1988, the WGA went on strike over the then-small home video market. At the time, the producers argued that home video was new, production costs were high and profits were uncertain. They promised that if the market ever became profitable, they would return to the bargaining table. Today, the DVD market is carrying the movie industry. Did the AMPTP ever return? What do you think?

When Jack Myers, publisher of an entertainment industry newsletter, appeared on the NPR show "On the Media" this past Sunday, he made the point that if the writers' demands are met, the Screen Actors Guild and the Directors Guild will be right behind them.

"So you can multiply by three, and then, adding in other issues, probably by four," Myers said. "At this point in time, (the producers) don't know what their profits are going to be. They don't know what the incremental distribution costs are going to be. They don't know what their technology costs are going to be. They don't know what their development, sales and marketing costs are going to be, and they don't know what the revenues are going to be from advertisers. Right now, Internet advertising inventory can be bought very, very cheaply. So they're concerned."

It sounds familiar, doesn't it?

So what's happening at the negotiating table? Nothing, because the AMPTP is counting on the writers - many of whom live from one job to the next - getting whipped and coming back to work with their tails between their legs.

"The alliance is simply not coming to the negotiating table," Myers said. "What they're doing is they're falling into their traditional pattern of essentially ignoring you and hoping you'll go away and assuming that the writers will experience more pain than they will, and that the writers won't have the stomach to last until the summer."

Some smaller entertainment companies, like David Letterman's "World Wide Pants" and Tom Cruise's United Artists, have made side deals with the WGA. They gave the writers a fair share and went back to work.

The AMPTP's cavalier attitude is hurting everyone else. Who? The writers, sure. The actors, who aren't working. The crews behind the cameras. The costume and set designers. The fashion designers whose dresses won't be appearing on any red carpet soon. Joan and Melissa. The entertainment magazines - no pages full of "Best Dressed" and "Worst Dressed" actresses standing around in what looks like glittery nightgowns. The television stations. The advertisers.

And most of all - this is my second dog in the hunt - it hurts us, the entertainment audience. Television networks are running out of new scripted dramas. How many "American Gladiator" and dance specials can people stand? How many reruns of "Law and Order" can people watch?

The film studios still have new movies awaiting release throughout the coming summer. Then their products will dry up, too. The entire entertainment industry - one of the few industries we have left in the United States, making one of the few products other countries still want and need from us - could dry up.

My third dog? I'm on the side of labor. In an economic climate where most of us struggle, uninsured, from paycheck to paycheck, and where many of us turn on teachers because they have salaries and benefits that we can only envy, the thought of being protected from corporate greed by a union for most of us is only a dream. Until the "Reagan Revolution," it used to be a right. We need that right back again.

Support the writers. The idea of Jay Leno, Jon Stewart and Stephen Colbert continuing to make fools of themselves on television is too horrible to bear.

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