The WGA Strike For Dummies: End Game - But What About Our Future?

I've been through four Writers Guild strikes and this is the first contract for which I'll be voting yes.

After the lackluster negotiation posture the Guild put forth over the past twenty odd years, it's good to see our union has returned with renewed spirit and vigor to the purpose for which it was born.

Having said that, I feel it's imperative to ask why there's no language about the future? Not even the supposition of the future, which we all know is coming. A simple sentence such as these rates or percentages will change as the Internet becomes the primary transmission medium. When the Internet replaces broadcast, cable and satellite as the principal means to which we connect our television sets.

We don't want it to be assumed that because we have been strong and purposeful the past three and a half months, our leadership will be the same in three to six or even twelve years when all of this is likely to come about.

I say this because we assumed things would change when cable grew, and they didn't -- in fact our rates went down from 2.5% to 2% for shows produced after July 1, 1984.

We assumed things would change when the VHS and later DVD markets became more profitable. The rates are still the same.

We assumed things would change when, in 1988, the one hour rerun rate was, in most cases, reduced to 50% of the syndication formula. It remains the same today.

After awhile, though many of us complained about the new practice of rerunning shows on cable directly from their prime-time network run, bypassing the lucrative residuals earned on local broadcast stations, and saw our residuals shrivel from four to five figures to two and three figure amounts, I was told it wasn't a strike issue. And was told last October it wasn't even on the table. It has obviously become a non-issue.

Yet for seventeen or more years this practice has diminished our residual income, because we didn't follow up after 1981, and for TV writers the loss has been arguably much greater than the raw deal we got in DVDs.

We must make certain that our resolve exhibited for the current cause doesn't go away and transform itself into complacency as the TV business morphs from broadcast to the Internet.

I was recently in Brazil and saw a portent of our future watching cable TV in my hotel room. A number of selections were cable channels called The Warner Channel and the Universal Channel, which aired shows mostly from their studios' output, including new series like "Chuck," "Gossip Girl" and "Moonlight," instead of scattering their programs around a variety of networks. I wondered why, when bandwidth is improved to the extent that people can watch Internet-transmitted shows on TVs in the comfort of their living rooms, it wasn't inevitable that these mega-companies or even smaller independent ones wouldn't just bypass the pesky network development departments, form their own companies and produce entertainment for public consumption in the same manner?

There is nothing in the new contract regarding compensation for original material produced for this new media. We have been told that all of it is negotiable, which means that it will effectively be every man and woman for him or herself. At the moment, this is not a major problem because the likelihood of what I've described above will not present itself during the term of this contract. However, it sets a precedent for chaos if we're not prepared, and writing for original television series becomes akin to making separate deals like we do when we sell feature films.

"A" and "B" list television people will make more for writing an episode. Hungrier people on a lower tier will make less, and new people starting out possibly less than that. All this, though unlike a feature film, which stands by itself, most episodes of a successful series have equally high ratings with no regard by the audience as to who wrote the piece. And if this happens it will end one of the best aspects of our Guild, that it sets minimums for a writer's services and, for the most part, at least at the episodic level, almost everyone gets the same rate and the same residuals.

However, if we potentially devalue these episodes by not having the union stand behind their worth, even when original quality fare is produced by major production companies and displayed on TVs similar to the way they are today, with commercials and a reliable schedule -- but delivered through a different transmission mechanism -- this is something that's clearly worrisome.

Our leaders say we'll address this when it comes, that we have a system soon to be in place that will eventually base our future residual income on a percentage of the distributor's gross. That we will be able to inspect the contracts to prevent the AMPTP from cooking the books. All this is a good start, but our past history gives me pause that we will be able to catch up when the Internet replaces broadcast and cable without language already in the deal that would have enshrined this almost certain future.

Which leads me to wonder, are we going to be ready for that eventuality? Or will it pass us by as cable grew from its early beginnings rerunning old black and white programs such as The Donna Reed Show and Alfred Hitchcock Presents to its present incarnation rerunning Desperate Housewives on Lifetime? Even as ad rates have soared for the giant cable networks, current writers are stuck with the old formula, which is still way lower than for series rerun in broadcast syndication, and writers suffer residuals based on a contract negotiated almost thirty years ago when the cable industry was in a nascent form, much as the Internet is today.

We have to let the AMPTP or its successor organizations know we will be watching. We will be ever mindful, and if they don't pay us fair amounts of the burgeoning monies they make producing and transmitting written material for this new medium, we will be ready to go out on strike again for as long as it takes.

This work stoppage has been our shot across the bow. And it was magnificently played. There's no doubt our producing partners know we mean business and now take us seriously. We must maintain this mindset for the here and now and for our future, but to accomplish that, as always, it will mostly be up to us!