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TV Writers’ Strike: Dave Letterman’s Bargain

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I've always Liked The Late Show with Dave Letterman and now I have yet another reason. Dave Letterman and his production company Worldwide Pants have become the first to cut a deal with the strikers. The other executives have the ability to hire scabs but no talk of that has yet surfaced.

I say 'bravo' to Worldwide Pants, which has produced other monster hit shows such as Everybody Loves Raymond, for meeting the writers' demand for a better deal. This bargain is unprecedented and has even been referred to as a "pact" between the WGA and a major production company. I think of the word pact as having a more human than business connotation, but maybe that's just my inside Letterman fan revealing himself. The specifics of the issues still on the table with the rest of the production companies are not entirely clear, but they mainly deal with DVD residuals and pay for online content. Minor requests if you asked me. There is something sacred about creative writing and, in my opinion, people who do it for a living ought to have a decent paycheck.

Dave LettermanWorldwide Pants is setting the pace for a solution, but what if the corporations held out forever and squelched the writers? Would we still have shows? Of course. You can always find someone to do it for less. That's not the point though. Writers pay should reflect their dignity and worth. Let me give you an illustration: One of the specific items for pay on The Late Show is Dave's infamous "Top Ten List." Envision the writers at the table coming up with these after the new deal has been put in place… for me it will almost be a holy thing. Not only do I imagine the list will be funny, but I can feel good about laughing. After all, one reference from the mid nineties states, 70% of all TV writers average less than 50k a year, though current WGA figures are slightly higher than that. Regardless, there's no "absolute scale" chart available (AMPTP and the WGA use different figures) as there is, for example, with public school teachers like myself. Thus, it's hard to gauge with true accuracy what the writers indeed pull down.

I have to confess that when this thing first started I got annoyed every time I saw Tina Fey or Jon Lovitz picketing about internet monies and such. It all seemed so over the top. I figured writers were millionaires already but that definitely is not the case. Writers write because they love it, and we watch because we love what they do. Dave Letterman is the first to strike a deal with the WGA. Now I admit it is easier for him to settle for a couple reasons: number one, he owns his show. This gives Dave more freedom to accept WGA offers than a larger company might. Second, Dave's shows are talk shows, so his deal may not be as acceptable to producers of scripted series television as the residuals may be easier to determine.

Tina FeyNotwithstanding, it's a model of a deal for others to follow. Dave always presents himself as humble on his show. I'd like to think he has spearheaded this bargain with the strikers because he sees them just as valuable as he sees himself or any other big stars on tv.

A new writer who gets a job to sit at that "Top 10" table should be excited about her/his accomplishment. The pay should be part of that excitement. When the television industry forgets where the heart of the laughter comes from, it needs to be reminded. Dave himself was once a comedy writer, working behind the scenes and thank goodness he hasn't forgotten those days. While I miss my other shows, all now in reruns, and hope they come back soon, I'll be okay as long as I have The Late Show on my TiVo to get me through.

About Damien Riley

  • http://kevineagan.blogspot.com Kevin Eagan

    I’m glad to hear this! I’ve always preferred Dave Letterman to Jay Leno anyway.

  • http://rileycentral.net Damien

    Thanks for your comment. Another thing to note is that Dave’s lawyers worked it so he owns his show. Leno is just an employee of NBC. They probably make about the same (guessing here) but one has more control to accept the WGA offer. I hope you liked the article.

  • http://www.maskedmoviesnobs.com El Bicho

    Considering the DVD market is more profitable than the theatrical market, and the same people who said there wouldn’t be any money in DVD are the ones saying there won’t be any money online, I don’t see how they are minor issues.

    Writers pay should reflect what the market can bear. This notion of writing a dopey Top Ten list being holy or sacred is a bit silly.

  • http://rileycentral.net Damien

    Thanks for your comment.

    Did I say that? No. I said the craft of writing deserves respect and that to me watching the top ten come bak will be almost a holy thing because it represents the two sides working it out. Being a teacher, I see unions go at it with the frozen chosen at teh top who seem to think they are the ones to decide “what the market” can provide.

    My article is meant to say the writers should have just as much say in that decision process. You seem to know a lot about the market and how much money the writers are asking for in regards to DVD’s and internet. I’d be eager to see any data you have to back up your problem with the strikers.

    I appreciate your input.

  • Tina Fey is hot

    I agree with you Damien, the internet medium shouldn’t be a medium where creative rights are suddenly abandoned. Even though the profit margin is small for internet video clips, the writers still deserve payment for their work.

  • Soka Tumi

    I believe the legal term is called quantum meruit.

  • http://rileycentral.net Damien

    @ soka … subtle yet helpful comment. Can you elaborate?

    means apparently “as is deserved” in the absence of a contract.

    Who should decide what they deserve? You? Me? The bigwigs of the industry? I say it needs to be bargained and the bigwigs (besides Dave) aren’t doing that.

  • http://www.maskedmoviesnobs.com El Bicho

    You wrote, “There is something sacred about creative writing.” Is a Top-Ten list not derived from creative writing?

    When did I say I had a problem with the strikers? Pointing out that the producers are using the same arguments about online that they did with DVDs was meant to show that it’s the producers who have a weak leg to stand on.

    Last I heard, the writers were looking to go from 4 cents a DVD to 8. I haven’t read anything about online, but I am guessing they want more than zero.

  • http://unifiedtheorynothingmuch.blogspot.com Diane Kristine

    I agree with your support for the writers, Damien, but the article’s a little confusing about the issues. Working writers already get a healthy wage – the strike doesn’t centre around the daily paycheque of the Late Show writers, for example, but how they get compensated on reuse of their work.

    One of the main sticking points is in residuals for DVD and online, so that when a writer creates something that is in demand, they get fairly compensated for it. Right now, they get decent pay upfront, and decent residuals from reruns on TV, but they get peanuts for DVD and next to nothing for online distribution. Given the way TV distribution is going, online is going to be more and more important in the future so it’s an important issue and one they have to win.

    The problem with coming up with an average figure for what writers make is that most WGA members are not working (which is the norm for the industry – most actors are unemployed). So it’s not that the Late Night writers aren’t getting well paid now, because they are. The issue is that if they win this fight, when they are between jobs 5 years from now, they might be able to afford to stay in the industry because the works they created 5 years ago that are still popular will still earn money for them.

    So that’s a longwinded way of saying you could always enjoy the Top 10 list on TV guilt free, knowing the writers of it are making far more than you and me. If you downloaded, maybe not so much.

    I support the writers, but not some of the strikers’ need to make it seem like they’re saving the world on our behalf. Well-intentioned as it is, your article feeds into that inflated sense of importance a bit too much for my taste.

  • http://rileycentral.net Damien

    @El Bicho: I wish you were close-by so I could buy you a drink, you’re being far too literal. I think there is something sacred about wearing converse shoes … for example. And if find it silly that the top ten is “sacred” well, consider the source. I watch tv and buy DVD’s so therefore my opinion counts here. it sounds like we are on teh same page anyway. I guess I used a little too much clorful language and/or hyperbole in this article where emotions run high. Thanks for your input, it was educational.

    @Diane Kristine: Thanks for chiming in and offering the hard data. I admit my article didn’t have much of that. It was fueled mostly by emotion, though I did offer a few sources regarding writer compensation. If you check out my author page here at BlogCritics.org you will find an article where I discuss the “Middle Class” that I am a part of. I make on a good year about 60k and I have a lot of student loans that go out. In that article you willl find out that my best friend is Eric Stefani, Grammy award winning songwriter of hits like “Don’t Speak.” Since the 90′s he hasn’t had to work because of extended royalties.

    I am well familiar with what extended royalties can mean to an out of work writer and your final judgement of my article is a little too “establishment” anti-union for my taste. But thanks for being part of this discussion.

  • http://unifiedtheorynothingmuch.blogspot.com Diane Kristine

    Anti union? That’s an interesting accusation. What do you find anti-union about supporting the goals of the strike but not the rhetoric around it?

  • http://rileycentral.net Damien

    @Diane Kristine: Thanks for clarifying that. There’s a lot of people who think we could do without teachers just as much as there are people who think writers are replaceable. As a union rep for my school district I’ve had them in my face so trust me on that one.

    As far as the writers’ rhetoric goes: is there a wrong way to fight to feed your family? I’d argue no. If you let the corporations dictate what the writer is worth, you have a far bigger problem than self-important in the press. After my umpteenth draft of this article I had to stop revising, it was one of the hardest I’ve ever written. Still not perfect by a longshot. I am glad to hear we both support the writers. Happy New Year, what are you drinking … Bloody Mary here ;)