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Strike Watch: Bigger Slice, Smaller Pie

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Green is Universal! NBC plans to recycle Psych from USA Network, its corporate sibling. / USA Network Photo: Alan Zenuk

The writers’ strike officially ended today, which means it’s time to assess who won and who lost. At the Kansas City Star, Aaron Barnhart generally credits the writers with a win, while the New York Times’ David Carr casts it as more of a pyrrhic victory, in which the writers lost a significant chunk of change at least in the short term. You could just as well argue, though, that both sides won and lost. The writers held their ground impressively and won a bigger slice of Internet money. But we also seem to be seeing the pie shrink before our eyes.

The calculus for the studios is relatively easy: they won, in that the strike is over; and lost, in that they could have arrived at the same fairly painless deal weeks or months ago. But by not doing so and keeping the strike going, they got the chance—whether by accident or nefarious design—to test out a cheaper, less-scripted model of network TV.

The biggest plus for the writers, of course, is that they won an actual chunk of the Internet sales and streaming that will ultimately supersede reruns and DVDs. Which means that writers fortunate enough to land plum gigs writing for big-network scripted shows will be better paid, or at least screwed over less badly. But it also seems likely that there will be fewer of those gigs going forward.

The strike didn’t change anything singlehandedly, but like any big shakeup, it accelerated changes that were coming anyway. Those changes can be summed up thus: (1) Network TV is getting cheaper; and (2) anything can be TV now.

Those two trends are inextricably linked. The strike gave the networks the excuse to cut expensive, unproductive development deals, and by necessity it means that they will be shooting fewer expensive pilots that will never air for next season. And they’ve been filling in the scripted gaps not just with reality TV but with shows borrowed from corporate siblings (Monk, Psych, Law and Order: Criminal Intent, Dexter). The boundary between cable and network TV, already porous, is practically nonexistent. If these shows don’t pull the mammoth ratings of an original scripted hit, they also don’t cost as much as a mammoth scripted flop.

For viewers, this doesn’t necessarily mean that there will be fewer good TV shows: as we’ve seen, many of the best new scripted shows are being developed by cable networks like AMC (Mad Men, Breaking Bad)–they just don’t happen to pay as well. At the networks, in the meantime, look for an even more tiered system of high-end and low-end programming, to keep the average costs down.

Mind you, these changes were going to happen with or without the strike, and I’m not blaming the writers for them. But ultimately, however you crunch the numbers on the deal, big-network TV writers are just knowledge workers in a shrinking business and a rough economy. They got the best deal they could expect, if not the best they could wish for: one that cuts you a better break, if you are lucky enough to get a job.

There is one brighter light for the writers in this meaner, cheaper, anything-can-be-TV world: the deal that Ed Zwick and Marshall Herskovitz cut during the strike to air their web series quarterlife on TV. Whether it’s good or bad, a hit or a bomb, the salient point for writers about quarterlife is that its creators own it. In the long run, what may keep writers afloat is not a particular contract, but going end-around the whole business by getting ownership of their work rather than giving it away. Owning your writing, your brand, your intellectual equity is what it will be about.

The big-network pie is shrinking whether anyone likes it or not. Time for writers to bake their own.