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August 19, 2006

NBC Universal vs. WGA

Things are just getting uglier in the battle between the Writers Guild of America and the networks. The latest is the complaint that NBC Universal has filed against the WGA to the National Labor Relations Board, claiming that the group's pressure has unjustly put a halt on the production of Web-based programming.

The issue here on both sides is not an aversion to transmedia storytelling but rather a fundamental debate over how writers should be compensated for their extra work. The network claims that, since they do not make profit from these Web episodes, they are just being used for promotional purposes and thus fall under the criteria for writing commercials and marketing for a show, which already falls under current agreements.

I have talked to people who are writers in the television industry, all of whom have told me that they have great interest in transmedia storytelling and see the potential but that the danger is in spreading the current writing staff too thin, adding new responsibilities on the same set of people without offering additional compensation in return.

This is the WGA's argument, and it's one of the reasons why some networks/producers have taken to producing their transmedia content through the public relations department instead of giving another task to the writing team. Of course, it doesn't take much of a leap to guess what happens to the quality of this Web-based content when it is not produced by the people who write the show but rather as part of a marketing campaign.

In this case, with no production of Web episodes in the past couple of months for three NBC shows and Sci-Fi's Battlestar Galactica, the producers are supporting the writer's request and not producing further episodes, which is unusual.

According to James Hibberd with Television Week, "Networks often spend about $5,000 or less to produce a webisode that typically has a running time of two to four minutes. With little to no advertising revenue generated by the content, networks are reluctant to pay writers for Internet reuse, instead arguing the content is strictly promotional."

The previous WGA battles with networks and producers come from arguments for extra compensation for writers from the profits derived to their integrating products in a show. And, while the networks have a good arugment that, while the Web programming doesn't draw profit, it is really just a marketing tool, the writers also raise an important point--that creativity and good storytelling is the essential part of a successful transmedia experience and that writers deserve to be acknowledged and compensated for the extra work that Web content entails.

What we are calling convergence culture may be an inevitable media trend, but it doesn't mean that it's going to be a smooth transition to accepting and incorporating new media forms and new ways to tell a story, as these continued wars between writers, producers, and networks continue.

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