LAST week in a CBS Studios picket line, one TV writer referred to the current WGA work stoppage as “the first Internet strike.” And there may be something to that.
Certainly you’d want to clarify that, first of all, even in the last few years of the Internet era, there have been plenty of labor strikes across the country -- to say nothing of the world. Thousands of UAW workers are striking right now against truck-maker Navistar. New York cabbies have called two strikes since September. Even employees at a dairy plant in Dawson, Minn., walked off the job a couple of weeks ago.
But this strike is the first that is not only about Internet commerce, it is also, in part, playing out on the Internet. The Writers Guild of America and its strike captains have set up online bulletins and blogs -- such as the one at UnitedHollywood.com -- to keep members updated. Other writer groups have tried to foster online solidarity by setting up “virtual picket lines” on Facebook and MySpace, and by producing “viral” videos of high-profile writers and actors criticizing the media companies’ position.
When Alliance of Motion Picture and Television Producers President Nick Counter released a statement last week comparing WGA efforts to identify strikebreakers (a.k.a. “scabs”) to 1950s-era blacklisting, the blogs instantly lit up with comments from incensed writers.
“I think we all know that Nick Counter is just trying to spin union policy his way,” wrote one commenter on Nikki Finke’s LA Weekly blog, DeadlineHollywoodDaily.com, which has become a go-to source for strike news. “WGA members are being asked to let the leadership know if anyone is scabbing. This is not at all unusual during a strike by any union.”
“Maybe this crap work[ed] in 1988 when we didn’t have access to websites, blogs and online videos,” wrote another.
Finke, who said she saw traffic to her site nearly triple in the first week of the strike, agreed in an interview that “in those days, it was extremely hard to get information coming in, and to give it going out. That is not the case now.
“It’s a little early to see what kind of constructive or destructive effect the Internet will have on the strike as it continues.” But, she added, “I would have to say if it helps any side, it helps the writers” by providing an information source that is independent of the large media companies.
Get to work
AS the strike moves into its third week, however, much of its news luster is fading, and the story has dropped off of front pages and home pages of major media outlets across the country. It is a strike, after all, and during a strike, not much happens.
For better or worse, news, like entertainment, has become a kind of content, and when the content dries up, people lose interest. In other words, to stay fresh this story needs more content. Which brings us back to the Internet. The very writers who have delivered “The Sopranos,” “The Wire,” “Mad Men,” “Boston Legal,” “The Simpsons,” “30 Rock,” “The Office” and every other quality Hollywood product of the last two decades should use this downtime to produce a few great episodes of Web television. Why do that? Well, creating the Internet’s first Web hit would be not only a publicity boon for their cause, but proof of their most salient contention: that the Web is a viable, robust and profitable new platform, not some hostile media backwater.
There may be certain obstacles -- some TV writers have clauses in their show contracts preventing them from producing serial content for other media. And then the WGA, which has tried to control the message of the strike, may not want writers to go producing online content willy-nilly.
The strike rules, by the way, prohibit guild members from writing for any of the long list of struck media companies, but they say nothing about creating online content as individuals, for non-struck companies or for companies they form themselves.
But these are writers, aren’t they? If they’re going to protest, they should use the best weapon they’ve got: their pens. That instrument would seem to be an awful lot mightier than the picket sign -- which, as a symbol of solidarity in the 21st century, has begun to look positively quaint.