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The WGA Strike for Dummies: Why Is It Taking So Long?

Are we, the industry major creative players, forever to play Charlie Brown to the AMPTP's arrogant and menacing Lucy Van Pelt?
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There's a lot of anxiety about the Writers Guild strike, throughout the community and on the picket line -- not to mention worldwide fans worried about The Academy Awards. There are rumors about imminent deals or at the least soon-to-be revealed breakthroughs. It was sure to end last week. No question that it will end this week. Then, a major letter from the Screen Actors Guild president and executive director decrying the Directors Guild deal. Does anyone think that this was coincidental and not at all in concert and spirit with the WGA leadership?

Does anyone think that the SAG hierarchy, after years of building trust and forging alliances with honchos at the WGA to make certain the next negotiation would be meaningful, would suddenly go off like a rogue bull in heat? Could it be that, amidst the uncertainty and natural fears pervading the industry and certainly among striking writers, it was necessary to accentuate our goals and give us the spirit and energy to move purposefully towards them?

Or to put it in more basic and simpler terms. Are we (the industry major creative players) forever to play Charlie Brown to the AMPTP's arrogant and menacing Lucy Van Pelt? How many of us each autumn look forward to the inevitable sado-masochistic exchange between Lucy and Charlie Brown in which Lucy says something to the effect, "I'll hold the football, Charlie Brown, and you come and kick it." How many times does Charlie Brown go through the motions and how many times does Lucy pull the ball away?

They update it year to year, and, making matters worse, Charlie Brown is imbued with the memory of each prior horrifying occasion. He's not a total idiot -- almost, but not total, as he at first refuses to do so, reciting Lucy's penchant for screwing around with him. But Lucy always has the upper hand. She changes her story just so and absolutely, positively promises to hold the football in place this year. And Charlie Brown, turning the appellation optimist into someone sure to be scorned, because he so wants to believe and wants so much to kick that elusive football, comes charging down the field one more time, only to have the diabolical Lucy pull the ball once again, as Charlie Brown goes flying up in the air.

We believed the AMPTP when they cajoled us to accept the cable deal in 1981 with the understanding that when they stopped rerunning old black and white shows and started making serious money they would take care of us.

We believed the AMPTP when they cajoled us in 1985 to accept the definition of gross to be one fifth of the monies they received, because the VHS industry was new and those cassettes were expensive to make. When it became really profitable they would take care of us.

Well, they did become profitable, even more so when they switched to DVD and its much cheaper manufacturing costs. And of course, the cable industry grew and grew as it became more and more the norm for shows to rerun directly from their original broadcast network home not on broadcast local stations, but rather on cable networks like USA, Lifetime and Arts & Entertainment. The result? Ad rates for those reruns -- hot off the network -- soared through the roof.

And guess what, they didn't change the payment formula. For DVDs, we still get 1.2% of the producer's gross (1/5 of actual monies received and called the distributor's gross). We still get 2% of the rerun sale to cable networks, which is actually a decrease of the original deal. It used to pay 2.5%, and that was lowered to 2% for all shows written after July 1, 1984.

And now there's the Internet and all its possibilities, some of which are already here. They offered us $250 for a year's run of hour-long shows and thought that since they upped it to $1,200 when they negotiated with the directors that that would seal the deal. But does it and should it? Apart from the fact that $1,200 is a small amount of money for a year's worth of usage, the money only kicks in after a couple of weeks free "promotional" usage. And promotional usage can mean anything the AMPTP chooses it to be. A few minutes of trailer or the full-blown episode, all of which, by the way, can be strewn with advertisements, which fill the companies' coffers further.

The AMPTP ridicules the notion that the residuals should be higher, because it is a new technology (see cable and VHS/DVD reference above). It further ridicules any comparison between the Internet and broadcast or cable, and says it's absurd to presume that the $20,000 hour-long prime time residual would be possible or relevant for reruns on the Internet.

Well, no one's suggested that either $20,000 or the $12,000 prime-time network residual fee that half-hour shows receive should be paid for reruns transmitted on the Internet. When the Internet replaces broadcast and cable as the main source of original programs and reruns, the fees should more accurately approach the amounts writers, directors and actors receive in syndication, which are significantly lower than the prime-time rerun rates. These monies are in the low to mid-thousands for subsequent runs and descend in value as rerun usage increases until the payments are in the hundreds of dollars.

I'm also not suggesting we must absolutely have the syndicated rate, and perhaps it's time to recognize the vast dissemination of viewing possibilities. Just as there are many, many more cable networks than there are over-the-air channels, the Internet choices are infinite, and yet it's clear that in the future a relatively manageable number of networks and film companies will dominate.

Let's have a formula that is meaningful and reflects the true worth of AMPTP afterlife profits, rather than the pitiful amounts they propose and that the DGA accepted, without much of a struggle as is their historical practice, since it would have been hard to convince the AMPTP they were serious about striking when 45% of their Membership receive only the barest amount of residuals. Unit Production Managers, Assistant Directors, Associate Directors and Stage Managers only receive residuals on Supplemental Markets such as Pay-TV and DVDs, and even with that only about 4% to 7% of the residual monies directors themselves receive. They receive no residuals for reruns on free or basic cable TV. Only directors receive those royalties.

With such a huge minority who have no reason to put their regular livelihood at stake to prevent the further erosion of future income in which they mostly don't participate, is there any wonder why the DGA gave in?

If they want to play Charlie Brown in the sequel of 2008, let them. But I sincerely hope that the WGA and our friends at SAG will not fall for Lucy's trickery anymore.

Read more strike coverage on the Huffington Post's writers' strike page.