What will it take to get writers and producers back on track?
For the Alliance of Motion Picture and Television Producers to show up and be ready to bargain seriously. The fact is, the writers never left. We’ve made reasonable, good-faith proposals -- and we are eager to sit down with the networks and studios to find common ground.
One problem for both sides is that technology is changing, as it always has: from silent movies to talkies, from TV reruns to home video, and now from broadcast and DVDs to digital downloads and streaming content on the Internet. All the guild is asking is that writers be brought along as partners in these changes.
But for decades, writers have been left behind. Every new technology or genre was presented as some unfathomable obstacle, requiring a cheap deal from writers. That’s what happened with home video and basic cable. It’s what happened with reality TV. Now Big Media wants it to happen again with the Internet. It is time to deal with these issues.
This is a prosperous period for the entertainment industry. Box office, ad revenue, foreign and ancillary markets continue to grow. Countless financial projections -- from industry veterans such as Adams and PriceWaterhouseCoopers and from the media companies’ SEC filings -- predict digital distribution will have strong growth in the coming years.
But don’t just take my word for it. Here’s CBS President Les Moonves, discussing his company’s earnings: “We are building our online audience at CBS.com. All of these sites are ad-supported. We will get paid for them.” Or Disney Chief Executive Bob Iger, talking last March about the new Disney.com website: “We’re streaming, at least in the four weeks that’s it’s been up, about 100 million videos a week.”
What the writers are asking for -- a small percentage of revenues from new media -- is reasonable and something the companies can easily afford. Today, we get nothing from streaming videos of TV shows, even though paid ads are often built into them. The companies want to pay us less than a third of a penny on the dollar for digital downloads such as TV episodes purchased on iTunes. That is one-eighth of what we earn on ad-supported TV broadcasts.
The companies say they can’t predict the future. But they don’t have to; the future is already here. Your computer is already a television, and you can watch “Lost” or “Heroes” on it right now for free. You download episodes of “The Office” to your iPod as easily as you do a song. And if you stream a TV show, you’ll watch paid advertising that can’t be skipped. Money is being made, and we simply want a fair share.
Writers also are seeking fairness in jurisdiction. Reality TV, animation and made-for-Internet programs are all evolving genres in which workers have found themselves underpaid and excluded from union representation. Writers in these areas only want what all workers in the entertainment industry need: fair pay, a pension plan and health insurance.
So why did negotiations break down? Why did the writers strike?
In part because the conglomerates never offered a complete proposal, only bits and pieces of an offer, each one paired with a cutback. We, in turn, laid a complete proposal on the table, and we are still waiting for them to respond to it.
Our negotiating team worked furiously to avoid a strike. At the eleventh hour, the conglomerates told us that if we made major concessions, they would make positive movement on our important proposals. But when we did so, they offered us almost nothing in return. Then they walked out.
So here we are at the table. We are ready to negotiate. The truth is, both sides need each other to make this industry work. Surely it is not asking too much for us to work together to craft a deal that is in everyone’s interest.
David Young is the executive director of the Writers Guild of America, West, and the WGA’s chief negotiator.