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.