A world of entertainment

The walkout by the Writers Guild of America is barely 3 days old, hardly long enough for either side to register any effect aside from the spate of reruns on late-night TV and Comedy Central.

While the writers were walking the picket lines, however, consumers around the world were buying more than 1.8 million pocket-sized music and video players, 600,000 video game machines and countless video games to play on them. They picked up 2.1 million computers, 140,000 camcorders and 9 million cellphones, at least 1 million of them capable of tuning in video from the Internet.

Meanwhile, more than 14 million people spent up to two hours a day on MySpace, Facebook or other social networks, and more than 5 million spent about an hour, on average, watching video clips on YouTube. An undisclosed number used Joost’s file-sharing software to tune in TV-quality programming, most of it coming from outside the major studios. And at Mininova, one of many file-sharing search sites, users started downloading nearly 10 million files -- most of them bootlegged TV shows and movies.

Put another way, consumers are rapidly equipping themselves to tap into entertainment sources that don’t contribute a dime to Hollywood or the writers union. It’s not a rebellion as much as an evolution, powered mainly by forces that didn’t exist during the last guild work stoppage in 1988. The disruptive technology in those days was cable TV and its expanded channel lineup. Now, it’s the Internet, digital video recorders, game consoles and portable devices that offer interactive experiences. At the same time, it’s much easier for people outside Hollywood to create grass-roots entertainment. YouTube may not be HBO, but it beats the heck out of community access cable.

Another difference from 1988 is that the digital transformation is happening with stunning speed. YouTube went from zero to 100 million clips viewed each day in seven months. Mininova went from zero to 3 billion cumulative downloads in less than three years. That’s why both sides would be ill-served by a protracted walkout, particularly when the sticking point is Internet revenue. The risk is that, in the interim, viewers will drift completely out of Hollywood’s reach.