November 8, 2007
WGA Strike in Context: A Brief History of Labor Conflicts within Changing Media Landscapes

On Monday, the Writer's Guild of America finally went on strike. The WGA and the AMPTP spent just over three months mired in unsuccessful negotiations this time around, C3 has been following the conflict over Internet residuals since 2006, with posts from Sam Ford here, here and here. Also see Jason Mittell's post from earlier today.

But even beyond that, these sort of debates have been at the center of battles between the guilds and the studios for decades, and anyone familiar with the ongoing struggles over structures of compensation in the changing media marketplace would have seen this strike coming a long way off.

According to LA Times coverage of the near-strike in 2001, these problems have been ongoing since the actors struck over residuals for TV rerun of movies in the 1960s. They cropped up again in 1980 when actors went on strike over video and cable residuals, and again when writers walked out for an industry-crippling 150 days over residuals for overseas sales. What emerges from this history of labor relations in the entertainment industry is a pattern in which the structures of the industry are too rigid to reflect the market shifts due to adoption of new technologies and viewing practices. In the context of the WGA strike, this plays out in terms of pay formulas and residuals, but we've also seen these same species of struggles in other areas, such as music distribution and television metrics.

The tensions in 2001 were the most obvious precursor to the current strike, dealing with nearly the exact same set of issues. At the time, both the writers and actors demanded pay restructuring in light of the immense growth of cable, DVD/home video, and foreign markets. A strike was avoided, but even at the time, it was clear to many that the conflict had merely been postponed, not adverted.

Also brought up during the 2001 talks were issues of internet residuals that went largely unresolved, in part due to the drop in the economy. This time around, however, the promise of streaming programming content online has become common practice, and the question of how writers are to be compensated is at the fore. While internet residuals are just part of a much larger issue in which writers don't feel that payment sufficiently reflects the shift of profits caused by changes in both the technology and the structure of the industry, the debate over new media content really highlights the inadequacy of old compensation systems to accommodate the present state of the media industries.

Part of the problem is that the studios, having dramatically underestimated the potential impact of cable and and pay-tv, were quick to jump on the internet video bandwagon without thinking carefully about where it might lead them. As a result, without a clear idea of what awaits them on the new media frontier and what the ultimate value of streaming programming or transmedia programming might be, they're extremely reluctant to commit to payment structures for the writers. Their solution thus far has been to cut writers out of online revenues altogether, by including steaming programming as "promotional" material. Other than being ridiculous, this is clearly not a workable solution, as evidenced by the strike itself.

The WGA solutions, however, don't go much further beyond better compensation models. According to their contract proposal: "Our philosophy is that the Internet IS television. Our approach is to minimize the differences between how writing for television is covered under the MBA and how writing for the Internet is covered. As the two merge, the more the terms start out the same, the easier the transition."

This point is further driven home by the WGA youtube video in which the computer and TV are shown merging into one screen. So while their demands seem entirely reasonable, they show that the industry as a whole, not just the studios, are still struggling with how to work with the changes brought on by the internet beyond just slotting new media into the same established business models.

An Increase in the writer's residuals is a necessary step, but only a temporary solution. The guilds and studios alike have to find some way to try out different models of how to handle online distribution and transmedia content until they find one that can fully accommodate the changes in how we view and engage with programming. Otherwise we run the risk of just resetting the countdown to another strike some years down the line.

For more details on the current WGA strike, and the way it has been affecting programming, the LA Times is running comprehensive and up-to-date coverage on their site.



As a branding agency I like to go out and scour the net for really great articles. It?s tough to find one that?s right on point and yours is. Thanks for the read and keep up the good work.

Scott White
The BIG Kahuna

On November 12, 2007 at 11:11 PM, Sherazad said:

After all the bubbles, the long tails and "content is king" here and there, now it comes deep into the pockets of one of the most important roles on the entertainment business: storytellers. Everybody is looking for a escape, instead of looking for a new way of developing things. They - writers, studios and managers - should watch more of their own content and see if there is any solution in there. They can start waching Jerry Maguire, Matrix and any Sergio Leone movie. A lot things to learn from there. And why couldn't they make a better movie to put on YouTube?