Tuned In

Labor Cyberwars: or, Why I'm Like a TV Writer, Except Poorer

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TV and movie writers’ contract deadline passed at midnight; no strike yet, though one could be called any day. The LA Times has the deets.

The Writers’ Guild dispute–and strike, if it comes to that–is about a lot of things, but in a nutshell the biggest is: how TV and movie writers get paid when their work is distributed in the form of things that are not, in the traditional sense, TV and movies. DVDs, downloads, streaming video: you know, you’re soaking in it.

As somebody who gets paid to produce content, i.e., write, I can’t pretend to be unbiased. If content is platform-agnostic in this brave new media world, then money should be platform-agnostic too. (That’s not to say I agree with the WGA in every detail, not being privy to the negotiations, but I hear them on general principle.)

This kind of argument is playing out in many workplaces–mine, for instance. You may notice that you are reading this article not in a print magazine but on an electronic computing box, serviced by an Internet hose. Writers and production staff at Time Inc. are covered by a union, which just finished a drawn-out contract renegotiation. (I’m covered by the union but not a member; Time Inc. is an open shop, meaning membership is optional.) A big point of contention between the union and management has been the fact the website’s editors and production staffs are not covered by the union–although union-covered magazine staff, like me, do work for the websites as well.

The deal the company and union reached: magazine staff (like me) can’t be compelled to work for the websites, and the company will not extend union coverage to the website staff. To me–and, for instance, Jeff Jarvis–it’s a worst-of-both-worlds settlement. Instead of treating the ever-more-important websites as if they were ever more important, the magazine staffers get the right to abstain from working for them, and the company gets to avoid, God forbid, having more unionized employees. The new website work deal doesn’t mean, obviously, that I’m going to stop blogging here–you won’t get that lucky!–but that’s because it’s entirely in my selfish interest to be read as much as possible.

(Mandatory CYA disclaimer: [1] I’m speaking only for myself; [2] as a non-union member by choice, I cut myself out of the right to vote on the deal; and [3] not having been in on the negotiations, I can’t really say which side, if either, is more to blame. Update: If you are still awake and would like to journey further into TIME magazine’s collective journalistic navel, Lisa Cullen has blogged a more incisive explanation of the Great Time Inc. Web Writing Fooferaw.)

My point: in journalism, as in entertainment, everyone knows that digital media are the future. They know there’s a lot of money at stake, but, even more important, there’s a blank slate: the chance to rewrite the rules of the market and workplace to their advantage. And that means they will fight over it, fiercely and repeatedly. And sometimes these fights may get so bitter that they work against the short- or long-term interests of both management and workers.

Thus with TV and movies. The writers want a bigger share of money from the media that will be the future of their careers. Management counters that no one knows what kind of revenue these new media will ever bring in. (Which is fine, but why not give writers a percentage of no-one-knows-what, then? I haven’t yet heard a satisfactory answer to that.) The writers were burned in the 1980s when they agreed to a tiny share of videotape revenues–because who was ever going to make any money off those things!–and they’re digging in now.

Even though some of them probably have more money under their sofa cushions than I will have in my life, I can’t blame them in principle. Hardly a day goes by that I don’t read a press release or an article in which some network suit is talking about their exciting new ventures in online this or streaming that and going all bug-eyed about the rich, albeit scary, digital future. To hear these megacorporate managers suddenly poormouthing themselves about the same media has to be galling.

I hope to God there’s no strike, lest Tuned In suddenly become the home-gardening blog. And as I’ve written before, a prolonged one could see both networks and writers getting bit in the digital ass as some of their audience seeks out other entertainment. But looking at the potential future stakes, I can easily see why both sides are willing to drag each other over the cliff.

In entirely unrelated news, I just set up my beta subscription to hulu.com–the new YouTube rival set up by NBC and Fox–and hope to blog about it soon. Not that, you know, the networks ever expect to make any money off this kind of thing.

Do you have a side in the WGA showdown? Or do you say, A pox on all their Hollywood-Hills houses?