The Blog

Greed Is Good: How Big Media Wants To Steal From Its Workers

I've seen this story before. In 1993, I and a group of other writers sued the-- and, by extension, every major publisher -- over the illegal use of our work in new media.
This post was published on the now-closed HuffPost Contributor platform. Contributors control their own work and posted freely to our site. If you need to flag this entry as abusive, send us an email.

Any day now, maybe even tomorrow, there could be a strike by thousands of writers who come up with the words that come out of the mouths of the actors and performers who we watch on the big screen, television, DVDs and, increasingly, the Internet, or listen to on the radio. What isn't always clear, because the traditional media conveniently avoids the topic, is how much this fight is a classic example of unadulterated greed of the few trying to triumph over the very people who made the few fabulously wealthy. Whether you are a member of the Writers Guild of America (west or east) or not, this fight is your fight.

The writers' demand is pretty simple: they want to share in the revenue stream coming in from DVDs and other new media uses. Big Media doesn't want to pay when it profits from Internet downloads, or for original writing in New Media and it refuses to pay more than a pittance for DVD sales. Big Media argues that, poor souls that they are, it can't afford to pay more because its business models for New Media are uncertain and it needs the increased revenues to offset "other costs."

I've seen this story before. In 1993, I and a group of other writers sued the New York Times--and, by extension, every major publisher--over the illegal use of our work in new media. We won in a 7-2 decision in 2001 in the U.S. Supreme Court (in the interest of full disclosure, I have to admit that Justices Thomas, Scalia and Rehnquist sided with us, too).

Though we fought a legal case and the current fight is being waged in collective bargaining, The Times and their cronies tried to make the same lame arguments we hear in the current fight being waged by the WGA: it was too soon to tell whether they would make money on the business.

For all those folks who aren't writers and get a regular paycheck, it's really important to understand the plantation-like economic model that powers--and enriches--Big Media. At any given time, 95 percent of WGA members aren't being paid a salary by Big Media. Instead, thousands of writers churn out scripts and ideas for content--most of which is never bought. You might sell a script or an idea one year and, then, not sell another product for the next 5 or 7 years. It's not because of a lack of talent. It is simply because Big Media has set up a brilliant system--it keeps a whole workforce turning out its products and doesn't have to keep them on any payroll, or pay their health care or pensions if Big Media decides not to buy what they produce.

And, so, the way writers try to survive is over that stream--in most cases, quite modest stream--of royalties that come every time a DVD is sold which contains their creative output. Remember this: the vast majority of writers do not--do not--live in mansions or fly in private jets. They are mostly trying to live a middle-class life--and that isn't easy.

And, as important, Big Media is engaging in the fairly familiar anti-union posture that is in vogue: it is refusing to agree to include writers for reality television in the jurisdiction of the WGA. Translation: Big Media wants to deny people basic rights on the job.

The truth is that Big Media is a hugely profitable business. The truth is that the top CEOs, while they are demanding that writers suck it up and make a pittance, are raking in obscene astronomical salaries and stock options. Check out these numbers for 2006, which I took directly from Forbes Magazine's current top ranking of companies:

Time Warner:
Revenues--$44 billion
Profit--$6.53 billion
CEO Richard Parsons' 2006 pay: $12. 95 million. Five-year pay haul: $45.36 million. Stock options value: $14.2 million (at April 2007 prices)

Revenues--$35 billion
Profit--$4.34 billion
CEO Robert Iger's 2006 pay: $29.93 million plus $8.8 million stock options

News Corp.:
Revenues--$26.74 billion
Profit--$3.34 billion
Boss Rupert Murdoch's 2006 pay: $25.91 million. Five-year pay haul: $86.42 million. Stock: since he owns the company, his stock is worth $8.7 billion

Revenues--$14.32 billion
Profit--$1.66 billion
CEO Leslie Moonves 2006 pay: $24.86 million. Five-year pay haul: $63.43 million. Stock options: $30 million.

The same is true if you go and look at most other major media companies.

While the media titans like Murdoch and Iger run around crying poverty, out of one side of their mouths, and an inability to pay writers, they run to Wall Street, investors and media analysts and speak a different tone: they claim, individually, that their company is on the leading edge of new media and can be counted on to continue to capitalize on the explosion in new media uses...and, therefore, the Street, investors and analysts should have great faith in their leadership...and value their stocks accordingly. They sell advertising based on flogging their companies as the leaders in the business. So, in one place they cry "uncertainty"--when it comes to paying writers their fair share--and in another forum they cry, "we are future-looking geniuses cashing in on the Internet gold."

Now, who made this money for Big Media? I'm sorry to break this news: It wasn't the CEOs. It was the creative minds that produce the content that we all consume. Tell me, when was the last time you watched a movie written by Rupert Murdoch?

We've seen this movie, in real life, played out across America, in industry after industry. The problem is not profitability or ability to pay. It's greed. A few people are feeding at the company trough (helped by compliant boards of directors), spinning the perception that they are the reason the company is doing. Then, they claim the cupboard is bare when it comes to the people who really make the companies successful. That's nonsense. Like all stories, we can help change the dialogue and make sure that members of the WGA get their fair share.

Read more thoughts about the strike on Huffington Post's writers' strike opinion page

Popular in the Community