(The Writers Mumble Inaudibly)

The Writers Guild of America‘s spokespersons are “potentially hurting their cause by being so slow to explain their side to the media,” according to Daily Variety, the showbiz trade publication.

The writers are “in danger of getting swift-boated,” the unsigned essay states — alluding to 2004 presidential candidate John Kerry’s refusal to defend himself against attacks on his integrity by a group of Vietnam veterans.

At CBS Television City Monday, a Writers Guild strike official shooed away a reporter who was trying to talk to a picket. The scriptwriter later admitted he was scolded for talking with the press.

Another reporter asked a question of a picket, who growled, “We’re not talking to you guys.”

Writers like to write. Apparently they don’t like to communicate, except for star writers who disregarded the instructions and talked anyway.

During the entire pact talks, the producers have shown a well-organized attempt to convey their point of view. But the Writers Guild of America reps are potentially hurting their cause by being so slow to explain their side to the media.

Many in showbiz don’t have a clear understanding of the writers’ demands or the reasoning behind these demands. And so far, the WGA leaders are not helping enough to get the message across.

The Wall Street Journal’s coverage also implicitly questions the guild’s “bold gambit.”

The writers are making their play at a perilous time when all media is under siege because of the transition to digital distribution. As music companies, newspaper publishers and other content creators have wrestled with these questions, one thing they haven’t done is stopped churning out their product — a prospect the film and TV industries face with this strike.

The writers are betting that the public will rally behind their work creating late-night talk shows, scripted TV shows, feature films and other programming that falls under their guild’s jurisdiction. That is a bold gambit at a time when reality shows — often using nonunion writers — have already taken control of much of the airwaves. At the same time, entertainment delivered over the Internet, ranging from YouTube to social-networking distractions such as MySpace and Friendster, allows consumers to engage themselves in ways that have nothing to do with films and TV programs.

Any prolonged strike could open new avenues of content distribution born of necessity. “If anything, the strike could create an opportunity for the online world to step up and prove its value to the guild,” said Ken Hertz, a Beverly Hills, Calif., attorney who has done extensive work in the digital music arena. “A strike could in a strange way damage the studios by creating online competitors who come forward to offer the union writers a new model that no one would have otherwise had the time or effort to conceive of.”

Adding to the writers’ risk: It will be a long time before their attempt to disrupt Hollywood’s entertainment machine is clearly felt. While late-night talk shows and other programs produced on a daily basis went directly into reruns yesterday, it will be weeks or months before the impact is more fully felt in sitcoms and TV dramas. In the film business, which produces its work months ahead of time, it would be well into 2008 before any impact was felt.

Not the strongest strategic platform, is it?

It almost seems like a law of business in the past 25 years that strikes only serve to weaken already enfeebled industries. I can’t think of a single strike since the Reagan era that has benefited either workers or the industry struck.

In the case of writers, the Internet is filling up with comedy video productions often much funnier than what’s available on TV. They cost nothing, and are generally a labor of love for those who write and perform them. A prolonged strike will give those viral snippets a chance to find larger audiences.

Do the writers really think the loss of fresh episodes of Jay Leno and David Letterman, rehashing a stale format from the 1950s, will be so sorely missed that the public will demand the producers capitulate?

What’s so maddening about the writers’ strategic and PR blunders is–their cause is a strong one!  The producers barely have an argument at all.  But they hold all the cards.  Answerable to large conglomerates, the producers have been preparing for this strike for at least a year, stockpiling scripts as well as developing new reality shows that don’t require writers in the conventional sense.  The producers will wait the WGA out, and will barely feel the economic impact at all.  After all, Leno and Letterman will be on TV tonight, in reruns.  How much less ad revenue will NBC and CBS earn?  Some, but they’re also not spending anything.

Ken Levine, a sitcom writer, teacher and blogger whose credits include M*A*S*H*, Frazier, Cheers and The Simpsons, should add PR-man to his hyphen collection. This piece, tucked away in the Toronto Star, is an excellent and entertaining distillation of the writers’ issues. (Forgive the Canadian spellings.)

I got a cheque recently from American Airlines. A royalty cheque. For the past several years as part of their “inflight entertainment”American Airlines has been showing episodes of Cheers, M*A*S*H and Becker that I wrote along with episodes of Everybody Loves Raymond, Frasier and Dharma & Greg that I directed. Considering the number of flights and years I’d estimate they’ve shown my shows 10,000 times. My compensation for that: $0.19. That’s right – 19 cents (American, so it’s even less in Canada.) I figure at that rate, in 147 years I’ll be able to buy one of their snack boxes.

An episode of Frasier I wrote is out on DVD. I make nothing. The script is included in a book. I make zilch. Soon you’ll be able to download and watch it on your iPod or iPhone at IHOP. The only one who won’t make money is “i”.

Are you sensing a pattern?

The Writers Guild of America is asking the mega-corporations that own the entertainment industry in America and the galaxy to compensate its members fairly for this highly desired product they create. Just a piece, that’s all. More than nothing. And without sounding greedy, more than nineteen cents.

Via-Uni-Time-Corps-Ney would rather have a strike….

I teach a seminar called The Sitcom Room (sitcomroom.com). It’s a fun weekend where I simulate the experience of actually being on the writing staff of a network show. Students rewrite scripts, have real actors perform their work, and learn first hand the realities of the business – little sleep, bad Chinese food, notes. But they eagerly participate, because they love the process, they have a need to express themselves, they want to be heard. Not one has said they want to be a TV writer to make money.

And when they finally do enter the industry, who knows what that industry will be? New delivery systems are emerging so rapidly that even the “unthinkable” was obsolete five minutes ago. These young writers will embrace that future, and through their vision and zeal will make it soar. All they’re asking for is their fair share. MyPiece, not MySpace. iShare, not iTunes. NetWorth, not NetFlix.

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One Comment on “(The Writers Mumble Inaudibly)”

  1. STEW Says:

    DELAWARE COMMUNICATIONS WORKERS UNION ENDORSES JOE BIDEN
    Published: 12/17/2007

    “He’s not just pro-union, he’s pro-working families.”
    Wilmington, DE (December 17, 2007) – Today, Sen. Biden received the endorsement of the Delaware Communications Workers of America (CWA), Local 13101.

    CWA Local 13101 Executive President Bud Speakman said, “We were the first union to endorse Sen. Biden 36 years ago and have never regretted that decision. What distinguishes Sen. Biden is that he’s not just pro-union, he’s pro-working families. He’s never wavered in his commitment to the working men and women in Delaware and we would expect the same of him as president.”

    Sen. Biden thanked CWA Local 13101 and President Speakman for their continued support.

    “Because of the support of CWA and other unions, I was elected as the first pro-union United States Senator in Delaware history. Since then we have fought together for Common Situs Picketing in the mid-1970s, the prevailing wage, Card Check, OSHA standards, pension protections and, most recently, the Employee Free Choice Act.

    “History teaches us that when the union movement is strong, our middle class is strong. And when our middle class is strong, our country is strong. As president, I will immediately sign the Employee Free Choice Act into law. I will guarantee that the National Labor Relations Board returns to being a fair forum to contest unfair labor practices. I will appoint people to the Department of Labor who understand the value of unions to our economy and will make sure that pro-union officials play senior roles at the Departments of Commerce, State, Agriculture, Homeland Security and Health and Human Services. And I will also create good, union jobs by investing in our national infrastructure. We have $1.6 trillion of work to do to rebuild our roads, tunnels, ports and bridges. That means more construction, manufacturing, and transportation jobs for Americans.

    “I am honored that the Communications Workers of America in Delaware have pledged their support to my campaign. As President, I will continue to work as hard for them in the future as I have over the past thirty-five years


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