The 2008 Writer’s Strike Explained

BY KATIE MAPES

Tired of being lost when the writer’s strike comes up in conversation? Still not sure what a “residual” is? Curious about what’s going to happen to your favorite show? This guide to the writer’s strike should help out.

What were the major issues at stake in the writer’s strike?

The strike was principally about compensation for DVD sales and so-called “new media,” which includes both Internet downloads, such as on iTunes, and streaming video, as can be found on network websites. Traditionally, writers receive an initial payment for completion of a script and then an additional payment every time that movie or episode is rerun. However, as television reruns are made less relevant through DVD sales and Internet downloads and streaming, writers began to worry that their residual payments would become essentially obsolete.

Writers already received some money for DVDs, about 0.3% of DVD profits – on the order of a few cents per set sold. The Writer’s Guild of America (WGA) had agreed to pay this same 0.3% for downloads.

Streaming video, meanwhile, was classified by the studios as “promotional,” a use for which writers did not need to be compensated even when the full episode was streamed on-line.

The WGA also wished to bring reality television writers under their auspices, but this never appeared to be a major focus of the negotiations.

Who were the major players?

The striking organizations were the Writer’s Guild of America, West (based in Los Angeles) and the Writer’s Guild of America, East (based in New York). The WGAW and WGAE represent film and television writers; members of the WGA run the spectrum from writers staffed on ongoing television shows to writers who have sold only one or two scripts that may not even have been produced. As a general rule, the WGA does not represent either animators or writers on reality television programs, who are generally classified as “producers.” Patric Verrone is president of WGAW, and Michael Winship is president of WGAE.

It is worth noting that many high-profile members of the WGA are what is termed as “hyphenates,” meaning members who perform both writing and non-writing functions. This includes, for instance, showrunners like Shonda Rhimes of “Grey’s Anatomy,” and even showrunner-actors, like Tina Fey on “30 Rock.” This group was contractually obligated to continue their non-writing duties in the event of a strike, although some refused to do so, shutting down production on their shows earlier than would otherwise have been done.

The production companies were represented by the Alliance of Motion Picture and Television Producers, which represents the interests of almost 400 companies. The most important of these, however, are the major production companies, including Sony, MGM, NBC, CBS, Walt Disney, Fox, and Warner Brothers. Nick Counter is president of the AMPTM.

What made this strike interesting or important?

First and foremost, the residual calculation formula that came out of the strike seems likely to persevere for quite a while – after all, the existing formulation for determining residuals on DVDs dated back to the beginning of the VHS era. As the Internet changes how companies can make money from entertainment content, the means of compensation for those who work on those television shows will be drastically reformed as well.

Similarly, the results of the WGA negotiations with the AMPTP (and the Director’s Guild of America, whose contract expired and was renegotiated in the middle of the strike) are likely to set the pattern for future Screen Actor’s Guild contracts and for negotiations with other unions who are not paid residuals directly, but do see them paid into pension funds and other benefit programs.

Also, particularly at the beginning of the strike, it was interesting to follow the public relations battle fought by the striking writers. Blogs and websites such as www.unitedhollywood.com and www.fans4writers.com proliferated, and one popular fan campaign involved sending boxes of pencils to media moguls as a show of support for the writers. Writers from shows such as the Daily Show produced straight-to-You-Tube comedy videos about the strike, and www.deadlinehollywood daily, a popular news site that gained prominence and popularity during the strike, streamed a series of videos entitled “Speechless,” starring high profile actors like Sean Penn and Holly Hunter.

What are the terms of the final agreement reached? Is it a fair deal?

Writers will now be compensated for new media in most circumstances. Writers will receive 1.2% of distributor’s gross receipts for download “rentals” (where the consumer pays for time-limited access to media) and 0.65%-0.7% of receipts for download purchases. Similarly, writers will receive 2% of distributor’s gross receipts for ad-supported streaming of television programs and feature films, but only after a 17-day streaming window in which no residuals must be paid.

Reception to the deal appears to be decidedly mixed. On the one hand, it seemed to pass handily, exhaustion having set in after the three-month long strike. On the other hand, writers have noted that most streamed programs are watched in the week after their initial airing. Similarly, there was no change in the calculation of DVD residuals, which some felt was too big a concession, particularly in light of the 17-day window.

What’s going to happen to TV in the wake of the strike?

Some shows – particularly comedies, which have a shorter turn-around time – are going into production immediately and will air the rest of their planned episodes in April or May. “How I Met Your Mother,” for instance, is scheduled to air nine more episodes this year, and “30 Rock” is scheduled to air five. “Scrubs” is now expected to be allowed to shoot its final episode, which will air some time in the spring. Some dramas, including “Grey’s Anatomy,” “House,” “Lost,” “Desperate Housewives,” and “Gossip Girl” will also return in April and May, and “Gossip Girls” may extend its run well into the summer months.

On the other hand, “Heroes,” “Pushing Daisies,” and “Private Practice” will shoot no new episodes until the fall. The critically acclaimed (and perpetually low-rated) drama “Friday Night Lights” looks likely to be a casualty of the strike; the same will probably be true for little-show-that-could “Jericho,” although it still has several episodes to air.

Shows that air on cable have, perhaps, fared slightly better. “Battlestar Galactica” will return with its final 20 episodes (probably split into two chunks) in March. “Big Love” will begin shooting season three this spring; “The Closer’s” fourth season is expected to air on schedule this summer.

A more comprehensive – and oft-updated – list of shows can be found at TVGuide.com. Until all these shows come back, there’s always the reality shows. “Little People, Big Worlds'” new season premieres March 3, “American Idol” had just reached the beginning of its voting stage, and “America’s Next Top Model,” premiering last night, seems to be a perennial favorite.

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