When it comes to disputes between labor and management I am torn. As with all disputes, "the truth" usually lies somewhere in the middle. But all my experience in working in the telecommunications industry in the 80s and 90s was that the unions that represented telecom workers did a very, very lousy job at supporting their constituents.
A long time ago, I worked with a guy who had an employee come into his office and say, "These are my demands." His response? "Do you have any hostages? Because if you don't have any hostages, you can't make any demands."
If I make my mark, the biggest failure of the WGA was in misjudging how important their hostages are to the networks.
In premise, I support the writers. I believe they should make a bigger chunk on re-use of their work than studios and networks want to pay them or have paid them in the past for DVDs. But while I support the writers and their premise, I am thinking less and less of the WGA and how it supports its constituents, especially in consideration of the realities of the business.
While we are sometimes prone to making fun of the likes of Les Moonves and Jeff Zucker (and heck, we're pretty sure behind closed doors, even Moonves makes fun of Zucker!) I think the network honchos are smarter than anyone wants to give them credit for. They may talk in public about how DVRs don't matter, but they know the truth of it - people generally fast-forward through commercials on DVR.
They also know this: people are more prone to watching reality shows, sports and other unscripted programming (Idol, Dancing with the Stars) live. So whether it's happened yet or not, in the future there was going to be higher premium for advertising on those shows - shows people are prone to watch live. Ratings could go down for the NFL over the next 5 years, but the advertising revenue may wind up doubling because those live viewers who will see the commercials are so coveted.
My guess is despite whatever positive spin they put on DVR usage, the network wonks are much more fully aware of this than I am!
What does any of this have to do with the WGA? I think it has everything to do with the way the networks are prepared to dig in here. Scripted shows matter, and they still matter. It's not like even a one-third of the viewers for most shows are watching on DVR right now. But scripted shows matter less than they used to matter. The world is moving that way, the networks know it and know that unscripted programming is often better suited for people actually watching the commercials.
The networks may well think, "You know what, #%! these clowns, we need them less and less and less - this is a way, way bigger deal for movies and the box office than it is for TV, we were moving to more unscripted programming anyway - if this accelerates that a little...so what?"
Will more people be watching scripted programming on the Internet in five years than they do now? Of course, though I vehemently doubt that even then it will represent more than 10%-15% of the overall audience. Should the writers be paid for that percentage, whatever it is? Well, in a world where the Internet was GROWING overall viewership, sure. But I try to examine probabilities. All the trends seem to indicate that in 5 years shows like CSI and Grey's Anatomy will have less total viewers, not more.
But even if overall viewers stay the same and it becomes a situation where 15 million watch via television (live or on DVR) and five million people are watching on the Internet instead of all twenty million watching via television, should the writer's be paid more for that net twenty million viewers because five million watched via the Internet? My response is NO.
It doesn't seem like the WGA has mulled the real numbers very much in terms of how it's handled the strike so far. I definitely think writers should get a higher residual than $.08 on a $20 DVD. But online streaming? Online, I think the writers should only make more money if in the aggregate the networks are making more money on the shows because of the Internet. It seems more likely that for now, and for the foreseeable future (at least five years) that the networks aren't going to make more money because of the Internet.
It seems like all this strike is doing is accelerating a path to more unscripted programming that was bound to occur anyway. With the longer view, I don't really see how this acceleration was in the best interest of the WGA's members. From the outside looking in the WGA comes off looking like another poorly managed union that has no chance against "management".
We'd love to hear from any writers, either in the comments or via e-mail, on or off the record. Do you think the union is serving your best interests? Let us know.