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Doing My Bit in Support of the WGA

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As a new reviewer on Blogcritics (primarily writing about the television series House, MD), I have been delighted to promote Internet-downloadable episodes of House, MD via Amazon.com’s “Unbox.” I have included a link for each episode I’ve reviewed so far; but no more. Not until the Writers Guild of America (WGA) writers are fairly compensated for “new media” distribution.

A major issue in the dispute between the WGA and the production companies that air and distribute their shows relates to series distribution being provided through Amazon.com, iTunes, cell phone companies, and other purveyors of “new media.” I know I’m completely simplifying this — there are many more details about the issues and the strike and its effects.

It is incredibly cool to be able to download the latest episode of your favorite show (in my case House, MD) the morning after it airs. Especially when my finicky DVR suffers a senior moment and fails to record the show. Better yet, the download provides me with a commercial-free, high quality print delivered direct to my hi-def computer screen.

It is incredibly not cool that writers receive no (or very minimal) compensation from their work that is made available to us via the Internet. The companies profit as services like Unbox or iTunes charge a modest fee (for Unbox) of $1.99/episode. If you add that up for an entire season of 22-24 episodes, the cost is about the same as a full season's retail DVD box set (without the associated box set production costs.) Sounds like profit to me. But I was never that good at math.

Additionally, some networks stream their most recent episodes on their websites (sometimes only hours after the original airing). And you can view them for no charge. Last season it was the way I watched Jericho (HA! I bet you thought I only watched House!). The streamed episodes are framed by commercials (paid for by real advertisers) which means at least some profit for the company.

I’m sure (well, I’m not entirely sure) that although the profits from this type of distribution are presently a pretty small piece of the pie, who knows what the future will bring? And this is the WGA’s point (I think). This is not even going into the issue of “webisodes” — episodes (sometimes full-length episodes) produced exclusively for web distribution. Written by real writers, but considered “promotional,” they are absent any compensation to the writers. The WGA would be foolish to ignore this potentially lucrative source of new profit to the networks as they negotiate a new agreement.

As for how it affects my favorite series (House, as if you didn’t know), filming will stop next week when they run out of completed scripts. David Shore, the mastermind behind the show is a “hyphenate,” as in “writer-producer.” He is also what they call a “showrunner” — the head honcho in the company that produces House for NBC-Universal. (If you didn’t know, House is an NBC-Universal series, which airs on FOX.) Shore has, as of Monday, stopped writing, editing, massaging, and tweaking any and all House scripts as a member of the WGA. Which means that, although he is the series’ creator and executive producer — chief cook and bottle washer (in other words, MANAGEMENT), he is honoring the strike as a writer. (Good boy!) When they run out of material (and I have heard conflicting reports as to whether House will have 10, 11 or 12 episodes in the can by the time they do) the cast will disperse (and Hugh Laurie will probably be on the next plane to Heathrow) and not gather again until this thing is settled.

David Shore and several cast members have been seen on the picket lines in support of the strike, and we, as viewers, can only hope that this thing is settled sooner rather than later. But also as viewers we have reruns and other distractions to help us through the strike. This is much bigger and more important than “what’s on TV?” This strike affects an awful lot of people who are not now working. People who don’t make a star’s salary, or a writer-producer’s salary. They are electricians, grips, secretaries and drivers; cafeteria workers and janitors.

As the companies have said, no one knows how much profit will result from the “new media.” But to shut the writers out of profits from what may be the distribution mechanism of the future for television is just flat out wrong. So, for the duration of the strike, I will not link to the Unbox download for the episode in my column. And while I will continue to tune in and DVR and watch each episode far too many times, I will not download; I will not open the FOX stream. I suggest that you do the same. It’s a little thing, I know. And maybe with no impact at all. But it’s all that this daughter and granddaughter of union men can do from my home base in the Chicago suburbs. Power to the pen.

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About Barbara Barnett

Barbara Barnett is publisher and executive editor of Blogcritics, as well as a noted entertainment writer. Author of Chasing Zebras: The Unofficial Guide to House, M.D., her primary beat is primetime television. But Barbara writes on an everything from film to politics to technology to all things pop culture and spirituality. She is a contributor to the book called Spiritual Pregnancy (Llewellyn Worldwide, January 2014) and has a story in Riverdale Ave Press' new anthology of zombie romance, Still Hungry for your Love. She is hard at work on what she hopes will be her first published novel.
  • Houseguest

    “But to shut the writers out of profits from what may be THE distribution mechanism of the future for television is just flat out wrong.” Couldn’t agree more, Barbara. And it’s heartening to see cast members joining the picket lines as well. While this strike may be “uncomfortable” for us, it is, as you say “much bigger and more important than what’s on tv” – it concerns the future (financial and creative) of virtually every artist in the business. Sometimes a short-term sacrifice is unfortunately needed for a long-term necessity.

  • http://community.livejournal.com/house_reviews Barbara Barnett

    I do hope this strike is settled soon. But the issues are important. If they are not resolved now, with this contract, by the time the next negotiation rolls around, enough of a precedent may have been set that writers, actors, directors, etc. may all get shut out. The Internet is such a powerful medium and for television it is really the big frontier of this decade.

  • Becky

    Yes, the issues are important. At bottom it comes down to the fairness issue, is it fair to have someone making money off the labor of someone else with that person receiving little or no compensation for that labor? In my mind the answer is unequivocally. Yes there is a lot of pain, inconvenience and lost income in the short term, but without this strike coming to a successful conclusion the long term is very bleak indeed. Without this, and other actions like it the corporations have carte blanche for whatever they desire to do in the future on other compensation issues. That is not a good thing for anyone.

  • Mary

    Glad to see this blog article. I’m a fan of the series NCIS, and am supporting the WGA strike. It’s deplorable that the industry and it’s corporate owners are being so mean. They’ve been asking for 8 cents per download, and 5.5 cents per dvd.

    The vast majority of these writers are middle class, and face unemployment for an extended period throughout the year. 48% of them at any given time are out of work. The small amount they are asking for would help them to pay their mortgage, put food on the table and pay for health care. Things all of us tend to be struggling with.

    Anyway, thanks for increasing the discussion of the subject. :)

  • http://community.livejournal.com/house_reviews Barbara Barnett

    It really hit home to me when an 86 year old writer (he wrote for Mr. Ed, which was on when I was a kid). He said that Mr. Ed (who is a talking horse) has spoken in the language of numerous countries since the show first aired in the mid-1960s. The writer hasn’t gotten one cent of the 40 years of profit made from his original words. Who knew the vastness of the international market back in those days? The writers on strike are being far-sighted, seeing only what the networks themselves see and promote to their investors: the unlocked potential of the new media.

  • http://livejournal.com/dramagirl42 Johanna

    Bravo! Thank you so much for using your voice as a member of the media to support the WGA. I have no affiliation with it or any union, but as a huge fan of TV, film, and media in general, I’m struggling with the fact that I support the strike completely, yet have little recourse in making any kind of difference. It’s heartening to see people with an audience speaking up for what’s right, not just in the present, but for the next fifty years of media business.

  • http://community.livejournal.com/house_reviews Barbara Barnett

    Being pretty new at this, I’m not sure how many people are reading my words, but my words along with so many others’ words do add up; the whisper becomes a voice–hopefully one that is heard by the Powers that Be!

    Three ways to make your voice heard:

    1. Do not download or stream any material from television shows: iTunes, Amazon Unbox, Network or series websites.

    2. Sign a petitiion: WGA petition

    3. An organization sprouted up over the weekend called Fans4Writers. Check that out as well. Fans4Writers

  • http://catholiccolbert..com Diane

    Great article, Barbara. I followed a link from United Hollywood. I’m following (and supporting) the strike because of my commitment to The Colbert Report. I think we’re seeing just how important the internet is as the WGA makes its case through blogs and YouTube and as fans are able to join in the conversation and mobilize support for the writers. Sure, it’s affecting our entertainment, but we also have more information about the issues than ever before. And a boycott of internet sources may be noticed more immediately than merely not watching tv would. Power to the pen indeed, in the hands of a lot of people who care.

  • http://community.livejournal.com/house_reviews Barbara Barnett

    Thanks Diane. I didn’t know that my article had appeared on the United Hollywood site.

    I miss Colbert and Jon Stewart a whole lot! I would love to have seen their take on the strike. With their viewership they could have a great impact on fan support. Maybe they should get together and do an underground-ish YouTube-style broadcast to rally the troops.

    Barbara

  • Jenn

    Just to be clear, since it’s a big no-no to post other people’s work without permission, Barbara, UnitedHollywood.com linked to your archives; they didn’t reprint your work on their site.
    I just thought, what with this strike being so much about who gets credit and compensation for creative work, we wouldn’t want anyone to get the wrong idea.
    I’m not in the WGA, but I have friends whose feet are sore, so I’m glad to see so many people acting in any way they can to support this strike. I’m having a hard time adjusting to life without TV, and have cut the items on my letter to Santa (goodbye, Season 3 of Veronica Mars; maybe the strike will be settled in time to ask for you for my birthday…)

  • http://community.livejournal.com/house_reviews Barbara Barnett

    Just to be clear, since it’s a big no-no to post other people’s work without permission, Barbara, UnitedHollywood.com linked to your archives; they didn’t reprint your work on their site.
    I just thought, what with this strike being so much about who gets credit and compensation for creative work, we wouldn’t want anyone to get the wrong idea.

    Of course you are right. I meant to say “link.” And in no way meant to suggest that they reprinted the article. If anyone downloads one less Unbox or iTunes episode because of my column I’m happy to be doing my (very small) part.

    We can only hope that the strike will be settled soon. I want an entire season of House; I need my daily dose of Jon Stewart and Colbert!

    barbara

  • http://tvandfilmguy.blogspot.com Josh Lasser

    Congratulations! This article has been selected for syndication to Advance.net, which is affiliated with newspapers around the United States.

  • http://www.seunosewa.com/ Seun Osewa

    When you say writers “aren’t compensated”, do you mean they work for free?

    When you say they deserve a slice of the pie because they contributed to those shows being distributed online, why stop at the writers?

    Why not give the same slice of that pie to the farmer that cooked the meal the entire cast and crew feasted on while producing?

    This is not about fairness; it’s just a fight between two powerful and arrogant unions.

  • http://blogcritics.org/writer.php?name=gonzo%20marx gonzo marx

    interesting to read comment #13…one would Ask how Seun feels about the system of capitalism, in which one has every Right to seek to leverage their personal profit for work accomplished

    the Writers appear to be looking for the same things that the Producers and Directors have already negotiated for, the Writer’s contract had expired…time to negotiate the terms of the next contract

    simplicity itself, and completely capitalism in all respect…

    Excelsior?

  • http://bringtvback.blogspot.com bringtvback

    Check out:

    bringtvback.blogspot.com

    We created a site to publicize a letter writing campaign that will really target the offending CEOs.

    It contains all the addresses of the CEOs who REALLY call the shots, has a sample letter and breaks down WHICH CEO is responsible for almost every show, so you can make the letters specific to your favorite shows.

    Please spread the word!

  • http://community.livejournal.com/house_reviews Barbara Barnett

    This is not about fairness; it’s just a fight between two powerful and arrogant unions.

    No. It’s actually not. The power couldn’t be more unequal. And I would not call corporations like GE and Time Warner “unions.” As the technology and distribution pipelines for changes, the compensation needs to adjust. Should an author not get compensated for the profits made through sale of an audiobook? Or from a download to an e-reader? It’s still the author’s book.

    If I ever publish my great American novel, I would expect as the author to be compensated not only for the print copies sold, but books sold through every electronic pipeline available. In my opinion, this is what the writers are asking. And to negotiate a fair compensation for that. Right now, for downloads (in most, but not all, cases) they are not being compensated at all. They are asking for compensation. For things like DVD sales, they are being compensated. They simply want a bigger percentage.

    above-mentioned site

    barbara