Friday, November 09, 2007

The Strike

Jane Espenson, one of my writing heroes, has been keeping a nice diary about the strike over at her blog. It makes for good color.

I haven't written anything substantive about the strike, mostly because I've been contemplating a giant, super-geeky Heroes post. But it seems to me that we should be pulling for the writers, for several reasons:

* Unions aren't always the greatest things in the world and often they're quite destructive and the source of tons of inefficiency. That said, they can be the provider of important protections and shouldn't be dismissed out of hand.

* In this particular fight, the Writer's Guild has a pretty reasonable position: There is an emerging delivery system for content in the form of digital downloads. Under current terms, the studios classify revenues from downloads not as money derived from the airing of creative content (which would mean that it would have to be shared with the creators), but as ancillary income from the promotion of content. In other words, they classify the downloaded content as a commercial for the broadcast content, just to get around paying royalties.

We saw the ur example of this last summer when Battlestar Galactica filmed mini "webisodes" of original content to be aired on the Sci-Fi Channel's website. Sci-Fi contended that these webisodes weren't "content," per se, but were simply long, extended commercials. That had actors. And scripts. And special effects. And plot continuity that tied into the series.

* The WGA wants to reserve a portion of that revenue stream for when/if digital delivery becomes profitable. The studios insist that it isn't profitable now, and probably won't be in the future. But if they really believed that, they'd give the WGA what they want, since 5% of nothing is nothing.

* So the studios are being less than fair and honest on at least two points. From a moral perspective, then, the writers are on the side of the angels.

* But who cares about them! For us, the consumers, our selfish interest in having better entertainment also lines up with the writers.

* There are three pillars to filmed entertainment: writers, directors, and actors. The writers have always been the least respected of the troika, but in recent years, that disrespect (seen in terms of salary) has actually increased. Writers make a lot less money in comparison to directors and actors than they used to. And the less money you make on a project, the less control you can exert over the creative process.

* And I think it's safe to argue that, in general, the more control writers have on a project, the better it generally turns out. (By better, I mean both commercially and artistically.)

* The importance of writers in TV is, I think, self-evident. They trump everyone else (except the showrunner, but on good shows, the showrunner is normally a writer, too) in terms of their contributions to the success or failure of the finished product.

* But the same is true for film, too. With the exception of franchises, I would argue that good writing contributes at least as much as the acting to the success of the movie.

* Essentially, I'd make the following analogy: Actors are quarterbacks, directors are running backs, and writers are offensive linemen. That's about how they contribute to the product, and how they're paid. And just like it was a welcome change when left tackles finally started being compensated more closely to their value a few years back, I think we should be happy to see writers moved a tiny bit closer to their real value.

11 comments:

Anonymous said...

Jonathon --

Jane is part of the problem. And I disagree about the three pillars of entertainment. There is only one: the audience.

The problem is writers, producers, directors are making crap entertainment that the audience is rejecting. Jane Espenson is definitely part of the problem. Which boils down to elitist snobs with well developed disdain for the audience, which is mostly average Americans.

Battlestar Galactica and Sci-Fi Channel are part of the problem. A niche show appealing to a niche audience with slice-and-dice upscale demographics (rich yuppies) that has a built-in audience ceiling. That was the NBC model (sell ads based on yup-scale demographics) and the result is an ever-smaller audience base (without luxury prices). You can sell Rolexes only if you price them at ridiculous prices and don't have competition with easily pirated stuff that is the same. [You can find cheap DVDs of American Gangster in LA, heck before the movie opened, of high quality too.]

This strike is all about Media Companies (Sony, GE, Viacom, Time-Warner, etc.) feeling that the only way they'll make ANY money is to rip off the writers.

Because fundamentally the creative class in Hollywood has failed, and continues to fail, in making anything that audiences are willing to pay for one way or another in large numbers. Meanwhile the limits of yup-scale demos were reached around 1996 or so.

Consider US population now, around 303 million. Population in 1970: around 203 million. Back in the late 60's, "Beverly Hillbillies" with about 1/3 less population did 60 million viewers! Now American Idol (a non-scripted show btw) does around 25 million, a little more than a third less. Nielsen confirms that even accounting for audience fragmentation to many channels, TV viewership (cost is only watching/ignoring ads) is down significantly from ten years ago, particularly in men (recall the fights networks and Nielsen had over this in 2003).

If Media Companies were making money, expected to continue to make money, this strike would not have happened. As it is they can probably do just as well with reality shows because they're cheaper and often draw the same if not larger audiences. Meanwhile Halo 3 did $130 million in sales the first weekend.

Hollywood's failure is what is driving this strike.

Anonymous said...

Sorry, anonymous, but your argument makes no sense. We have more choices these days than we did back in the Beverly Hill Billies days. So people get to watch tv shows, listen to music, etc. that might have smaller total audiences than those of the past. That isn't a bad thing. And it doesn't say anything about the "quality" of tv now versus the good ole days.

Mark said...

The Beverly Hillbillies was a much better show than the current Battlestar Galactica. That's intuitively obvious to anyone!

Or... not.

I don't think Anonymous has much of a clue. With hundreds of channels to choose from the winners will be the one that can appeal strongly to a subgroup. Mass appeal is still possible, but much harder.

BWAF said...

Or one can looks at this strike as a dialogue that is very much need that should have happened several years ago to discuss how and where the entertainment industry should be going and who should get what as technology has been changing the very dynamics of this industry.

Better late than never, eh?

James Kabala said...

"We saw the ur example of this last summer when Battlestar Galactica filmed mini "webisodes" of original content to be aired on the Sci-Fi Channel's website. Sci-Fi contended that these webisodes weren't "content," per se, but were simply long, extended commercials. That had actors. And scripts. And special effects. And plot continuity that tied into the series."

The Office did the same thing (obviously without special effects and without much effect the main plots of the TV version) and actually won an Emmy for it, with the same lack of compensation.

terry in az said...

I don't believe sixty million people ever watched the Beverly Hillbillies. And will someone please tell me what an ur example is?

James Kabala said...

Terry: I don't have the exact figures to hand, but at its peak The Beverly Hillbilles was a show of stunning popularity, at least if the Nielsen ratings can be believed. I believe that it is the only show to have regular episodes (as opposed to Super Bowls and other major sporting events, series finales, and "event television" like "Who shot J.R.?" and Roots) that rank in the Top 50 most watched programs of all time.

James Kabala said...

On the Internet, the exact figures are always to hand (albeit as of 2003):

http://www.ciadvertising.org/sa/spring_03/382J/jamie/trend.htm

The most households to watch a single Beverly Hillbillies episode was 22,570,000, which comes to even more than 60 million people.

Anonymous said...

If you extrapolated audience growth from a straight line, i.e. population 1970=203 million, population 2007=303 million, you'd expect, nothing less, that shows would all things being equal get 90 million viewers.

Audience fragmentation would reduce that, but there's nothing like an aggregation of 90 million people in total watching TV.

People have substituted AWAY from TV (and movies also) with video games and the internet. You also get inefficiencies with so much fragmentation -- i.e. too little talent in writing, producing, directing, and studio management chasing too many projects.

Look at pop music: proliferation of sub-genres and lack of mass audience appeals lead to ... Emo whining and rap gangsta minstrel shows and pop tartlets. Can anyone really argue that music, TV, or films in the era of mass fragmentation match the energy, creativity, and innovation of the era of mass-popularity?

Does anyone doubt that if there was continuing money on the table (i.e. it's cheaper to pay the writers a nominal sum since they caved totally on DVDs for new media) it would be done?

What's the cost of the strike? How replaceable are the writers? Very I'd say. IMHO the big time writer-producers (showrunners) and A-List writers will go back to work soon, and the lower-class writers be replaced with foreign (UK, Australian, NZ, maybe even Indian) writers working remotely.

If you are pulling in something close to 90 million viewers, the cost of less-skilled, culturally aware writers dropping your viewership by say 25% is 22 million viewers. If you're pulling in say 3-4 million viewers as many CW and lesser tier network shows do you lose 1 million viewers tops.

This isn't ego, vindictiveness, or "evil" just Media companies figuring the writers are replaceable because, well, they are. No one has figured out how to charge ultra-premium prices for TV/movies like say Rolex does for it's watches so too much pursuit by everyone in Hollywood but particularly the writers of the yuppie demo (with elitist writing) has screwed everyone.

You've seen the IHT article:
http://www.iht.com/articles/2007/11/11/business/strike.php

Those revenue participation deals (which might be also driving the strike -- i.e. agree with the writers and Tom Cruise wants new media revenue too) show the bad bet. Hollywood bet that the revenue deals would not hurt them because DVD and foreign ticket/DVD sales would continue to rise. Anyone who's seen cheap DVD pirated stuff abroad and at home in swap meets knows that was a dumb, Music-label type assumption.

The strike would not be happening if everyone was making money off broadly popular entertainment. Intriguingly, if a lot of revenue (around 50% is what I've seen bandied about) comes from foreign sales, why not hire foreign writers? Why not replace high-cost American writers with low-cost (and more understanding of foreign sales customers) foreign writers?

That's the outsourcing argument in other industries.

It's always bad not be a profit center.

Mark -- you've fallen for the Detroit fallacy -- "there is no cost to depending on SUVs and Trucks for profit -- mass appeal is unimportant." I'd concede the point if it was possible to charge super-premium prices for niche products but so far consumers have been unwilling to pay, say $35 per episode for Firefly (which is why it's not on the air) as opposed to watching American Idol for free.

And you assume there is no competition. Halo 3 did $130 million sales first weekend, already a "gut-check" sense of commercials shows as many game commercials (Xbox generic, Halo 3, Blazing Angels, Orange Box) as movie commercials. THAT should be instructive.

Jonathan V. Last said...

Just as a brief aside, I'd caution readers against trying to employ purely economic analysis in determining the value of writers, for a couple of reasons.

The first is that it's awfully hard to quantify the economic value-added to good writing in any way that's not anecdotal. The commenter above notes that writing was ultimately of little worth to the canceled Firefly. Maybe that's true. It's also possible that the writing contributed all of the value to that property, which, without it, might never have made it to air. It's possible that that it was the lack of value added by the actors that explains why the show is no longer on the air.

Alternatively, its possible that the show failed because of externalities--bad time slot, poor advertising support, the network's decision to air the episodes out of order. These things have real impact.

But on the other side of the coin, look at a show with monstrous success, such as Seinfeld. What portion of its value would you say derives from the writing? I'd guess quite a lot, at least in the first three or four seasons before the show began succeeding, at least in part, because of its own success.

One last caution: Hollywood is a dreadfully imperfect market. Shows get bought, and aired, and canceled, and renewed, for all sorts of reasons that often have little (or nothing) to do with economic considerations.

One of the more glaring examples I'm thinking of is the late Emeril, which seems to have been Jeff Zucker wasting his parent company's money so that he could curry favor with the super chef.

Just a thought.

SteveAudio said...

The failure of logic in anonymous' first comment is assuming that writers' best writing is what makes it one the TeeVee.

This is clearly not the case, most of the time, in TV, Film, and the music world.

The 'owners', those who provide financing: studios, Exec. Producers, record labels, all have the final say, and force all but the most powerful writers to conform.

Thus, for every West Wing, NYPC Blue, etc., there are hundreds of lesser shows, some cause by lesser writing, sure, but many caused by lesser Corporate mindsets.

There is indeed a food chain at work, and writers are hardly at the top.