Is the WGA Just Another Lousy Union?

Categories: WGA Strike

Written By

December 13th, 2007

WGA Strike 

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.

 
  • Fenny

    I'm not a writer, but I am totally in support of them. I can see where you are coming from with the reality shows drawing bigger live audiences, because people want to see the acts and vote, then see the results as they happen. But if the number of scripted shows falls, so will DVD sales. I can't imagine that Idol will generate the same post transmission revenue in terms of DVD sales that something like Lost or CSI does. My shelves are straining under the complete sets of pretty much anything ever written by Aaron Sorkin and Joss Whedon and more Star Trek episodes than you can shake a stick at. As reality shows take over, these are what I will watch instead.

    As for the internet. Hammer films are about to release their first film for 30 years direct to the web then straight to DVD after that. No cinematic release at all . So how do the writers get remunerated for this? Other studios will follow this model soon enough.

    The web is going to become the future of shows, with anything up to 50% of viewers watching online. If the networks can't rearrange their advertising revenue to reflect this, that's their problem, but telling the writers that they won't get anything for shows that are going to appear online is just plain wrong.

  • http://tvbythenumbers.com Robert Seidman

    Fenny, I think you frame the extremes of it nicely. In the event that something airs ONLY online and draws 20 million viewers, I think it's reasonable to expect the writer would be paid accordingly. The notion that they'd get nothing for this is not acceptable.

    But to say “if the networks can't rearrange their advertising to support this, that's their problem” is not reality. Money is money, and if the networks can't get as much of it, that's everyone's problem, including the writers.

    While DVD sales of TV series are a very high margin business that is gravy for the studios, it's not the major revenue source (or even close). I believe the writers should get more than they're getting on DVDs. I believe writers should get paid if their content ONLY airs online (provided it has audience).

    I do not believe that if you take the existing ~20 million who watch Grey's and 10 million of them move to the Internet that the writer's should get paid more than they are already making. Here, the network does take the risk.

    if the networks can't figure out how to rearrange their advertising they won't make as much money — that's not true for the writers.

    To sum it up:

    1. people do need to get paid
    2. if the networks figure out how to make MORE money because if the Internet, the writers (actors and directors) should share in those increases.
    3. if the networks can't figure out how to make MORE money because of the Internet, the writers (actors and directors) should not get MORE money. If this occurs, the networks take all the risk and the writers aren't penalized.

  • Fenny

    I’m not a writer, but I am totally in support of them. I can see where you are coming from with the reality shows drawing bigger live audiences, because people want to see the acts and vote, then see the results as they happen. But if the number of scripted shows falls, so will DVD sales. I can’t imagine that Idol will generate the same post transmission revenue in terms of DVD sales that something like Lost or CSI does. My shelves are straining under the complete sets of pretty much anything ever written by Aaron Sorkin and Joss Whedon and more Star Trek episodes than you can shake a stick at. As reality shows take over, these are what I will watch instead.

    As for the internet. Hammer films are about to release their first film for 30 years direct to the web then straight to DVD after that. No cinematic release at all . So how do the writers get remunerated for this? Other studios will follow this model soon enough.

    The web is going to become the future of shows, with anything up to 50% of viewers watching online. If the networks can’t rearrange their advertising revenue to reflect this, that’s their problem, but telling the writers that they won’t get anything for shows that are going to appear online is just plain wrong.

  • http://tvbythenumbers.com Robert Seidman

    Fenny, I think you frame the extremes of it nicely. In the event that something airs ONLY online and draws 20 million viewers, I think it’s reasonable to expect the writer would be paid accordingly. The notion that they’d get nothing for this is not acceptable.

    But to say “if the networks can’t rearrange their advertising to support this, that’s their problem” is not reality. Money is money, and if the networks can’t get as much of it, that’s everyone’s problem, including the writers.

    While DVD sales of TV series are a very high margin business that is gravy for the studios, it’s not the major revenue source (or even close). I believe the writers should get more than they’re getting on DVDs. I believe writers should get paid if their content ONLY airs online (provided it has audience).

    I do not believe that if you take the existing ~20 million who watch Grey’s and 10 million of them move to the Internet that the writer’s should get paid more than they are already making. Here, the network does take the risk.

    if the networks can’t figure out how to rearrange their advertising they won’t make as much money — that’s not true for the writers.

    To sum it up:

    1. people do need to get paid
    2. if the networks figure out how to make MORE money because if the Internet, the writers (actors and directors) should share in those increases.
    3. if the networks can’t figure out how to make MORE money because of the Internet, the writers (actors and directors) should not get MORE money. If this occurs, the networks take all the risk and the writers aren’t penalized.

  • dom

    no one is gonna pay to see or have a desire to see reruns of idol, dancing, survivor 2-3-4- 10 20 years from now. when you look at the 60's… do the studios make money off of old game and news shows or do they money from sitcoms and dramas?

    imagine 10 years from now. “oh wow… look… the third season of American Idol is on sale… i gotta have that!” not gonna happen.

  • dom

    no one is gonna pay to see or have a desire to see reruns of idol, dancing, survivor 2-3-4- 10 20 years from now. when you look at the 60′s… do the studios make money off of old game and news shows or do they money from sitcoms and dramas?

    imagine 10 years from now. “oh wow… look… the third season of American Idol is on sale… i gotta have that!” not gonna happen.

  • James

    Unfortunately, the WGA does appear to be just another lousy union that can't get the job done. They've been negotiating since July. No matter how ogre-like the AMPTP, surely an agreement could have been inked by now. As it is, outside forces (DGA talks, financial pressure, public indifference) will probably compel WGA to accept whatever agreement it can get. Hopefully not, but…

    My fear is that WGA management is actively seeking other industries to unionize in a quest to become a large, influential trade union. No overt evidence to support this fear, but enough showing between the lines.

    Also, not to sound like the AMPTP, but spoofing web sites and sending pencils is pretty lame PR tactics. Getting a case of pencils is sure to impress even the most jaded multi-millionaire, right?

    In any case, this strike, stupidly called before the holidays, is a train wreck and no one seems the least bit interested in calling an ambulance. I keep wondering what WGA management is doing to end the strike. What are they doing on a daily basis? Late today WGA filed a complaint with the National Labor Relations Board of unfair labor practice against the AMPTP who, in turn, shot right back with a statement denying everything. Tit for tat, name calling and finger pointing, and for what?

    We're still not working and they're still not talking.

  • James

    Unfortunately, the WGA does appear to be just another lousy union that can’t get the job done. They’ve been negotiating since July. No matter how ogre-like the AMPTP, surely an agreement could have been inked by now. As it is, outside forces (DGA talks, financial pressure, public indifference) will probably compel WGA to accept whatever agreement it can get. Hopefully not, but…

    My fear is that WGA management is actively seeking other industries to unionize in a quest to become a large, influential trade union. No overt evidence to support this fear, but enough showing between the lines.

    Also, not to sound like the AMPTP, but spoofing web sites and sending pencils is pretty lame PR tactics. Getting a case of pencils is sure to impress even the most jaded multi-millionaire, right?

    In any case, this strike, stupidly called before the holidays, is a train wreck and no one seems the least bit interested in calling an ambulance. I keep wondering what WGA management is doing to end the strike. What are they doing on a daily basis? Late today WGA filed a complaint with the National Labor Relations Board of unfair labor practice against the AMPTP who, in turn, shot right back with a statement denying everything. Tit for tat, name calling and finger pointing, and for what?

    We’re still not working and they’re still not talking.

  • Rena Moretti

    I think you touched up on an interesting point in your article.

    Hopefully you won't mind if I try to dig deeper.

    You said that advertisers may end up paying more for people watching live in the future. Maybe double.

    It made me think of how the networks have supposedly gotten more and more money for the same viewers, even though there is no reason for advertisers to pay more.

    Now, I realize that the relationship between Madison Avenue ad buyers and the networks is symbiotic and that ad buyers may not be trying really hard to save money for their clients, but two thoughts come to mind:

    1) Is this even true? After all, the only source we have for ad rates are the networks, and we all know how unreliable networks and studios are about how well they are really doing. This is actually one of the problems making the strike worse. The WGA has chosen to believe all the rosy PR releases of the studios and wants its “fair share” based on that, not on reality.

    2) If this is true, is it a bubble? How long will ad buyers overpay for ad time. Already the networks have been forced to hand out cash because they ran out of make goods (and who knows in reality how many ads we see are make goods anyway?)

    In a world where network ratings have declined, where the networks have de-programmed Saturdays and are talking openly of de-programming 8-9 (sorry programming with reality shows!) how can the WGA think that ever increasing salaries can work?

    The trend is clearly towards lower-cost programming.

    It would behoove everyone involved to realize lower-cost programming was all programming until recently. Dramatic TV shows have seen huge increases in their budgets. Recently I have read pilots cost up to $10 million now (for one hour!!) when you can easily produce a good TV movie for $2 million.

    But nobody wants to talk about that.

    The WGA is locked into ever increasing demands and the studios are too chicken to lay their real cards on the table.

    Even if the strike were to end, the underlying problems of the film and TV industry will remain unaddressed.

    That's the situation Detroit Auto Manufacturers were in until they went bankrupt and everyone lost big.

    There is no sign anyone at the bargaining table is willing to even bring this up.

  • Rena Moretti

    One more point.

    People DO need to get paid, but writers are already getting paid extremely well. For every working writer, there are dozens who'd take their place for 1990 wages.

    They want more and they have every right to do so. They've also been misled by the studios about DVD residuals. Were they striking for that, I'd understand a lot more.

    But the long and short of it is they are well-off people who want more, not “little guys” and they should stop the pretense.

  • Rena Moretti

    Fenny:

    Remember that writers do get a fee for their scripts. It's not like they work for free and have to wait for royalty checks to make money.

    Now I really like the idea that creators should participate in the success of their creation. I think it's a good thing and a fair thing.

    But they shouldn't act like it's a common practice.

    It's very uncommon for people to be paid past their salary. Just like it's uncommon for people to be fed on the job the way movie production people are.

  • Rena Moretti

    Is this a thought provoking article or what?

    One more point: the networks are always trying to pin their declining fortunes on changing tastes of the public and competition.

    While competition does matter, one thing the networks (and the WGA for that matter) never talk about is quality.

    This year's declining ratings for the networks can be pinned 100% on bad quality. They hired bad producers to make bad shows. They got bad ratings. Simple as that.

    I'll give you two examples:

    When you hire a David Eick and let him do to Bionic woman what he did to Battlestar Galactica, a low-rated show even for cable that audiences have sampled and soundly rejected, the low ratings were a given.

    Criminal Minds has lost 4-6 million viewers this year. It was caused by Mandy Patinkin leaving and the quality of the show collapsing at the same time. It wasn't caused by the internet or by competition from cable. It was caused by shoddy writing and directing (ie. producing) and by the bad luck of losing a great actor to still unknown reasons.

    In other words, declines are not inevitable, and if they were, the scale of those declines are a function of the quality of the networks' offerings.

    When you don't program Saturday Night, you're not giving yourself the chance to find that diamond in the rough.

  • Rena Moretti

    I think you touched up on an interesting point in your article.

    Hopefully you won’t mind if I try to dig deeper.

    You said that advertisers may end up paying more for people watching live in the future. Maybe double.

    It made me think of how the networks have supposedly gotten more and more money for the same viewers, even though there is no reason for advertisers to pay more.

    Now, I realize that the relationship between Madison Avenue ad buyers and the networks is symbiotic and that ad buyers may not be trying really hard to save money for their clients, but two thoughts come to mind:

    1) Is this even true? After all, the only source we have for ad rates are the networks, and we all know how unreliable networks and studios are about how well they are really doing. This is actually one of the problems making the strike worse. The WGA has chosen to believe all the rosy PR releases of the studios and wants its “fair share” based on that, not on reality.

    2) If this is true, is it a bubble? How long will ad buyers overpay for ad time. Already the networks have been forced to hand out cash because they ran out of make goods (and who knows in reality how many ads we see are make goods anyway?)

    In a world where network ratings have declined, where the networks have de-programmed Saturdays and are talking openly of de-programming 8-9 (sorry programming with reality shows!) how can the WGA think that ever increasing salaries can work?

    The trend is clearly towards lower-cost programming.

    It would behoove everyone involved to realize lower-cost programming was all programming until recently. Dramatic TV shows have seen huge increases in their budgets. Recently I have read pilots cost up to $10 million now (for one hour!!) when you can easily produce a good TV movie for $2 million.

    But nobody wants to talk about that.

    The WGA is locked into ever increasing demands and the studios are too chicken to lay their real cards on the table.

    Even if the strike were to end, the underlying problems of the film and TV industry will remain unaddressed.

    That’s the situation Detroit Auto Manufacturers were in until they went bankrupt and everyone lost big.

    There is no sign anyone at the bargaining table is willing to even bring this up.

  • Rena Moretti

    One more point.

    People DO need to get paid, but writers are already getting paid extremely well. For every working writer, there are dozens who’d take their place for 1990 wages.

    They want more and they have every right to do so. They’ve also been misled by the studios about DVD residuals. Were they striking for that, I’d understand a lot more.

    But the long and short of it is they are well-off people who want more, not “little guys” and they should stop the pretense.

  • Rena Moretti

    Fenny:

    Remember that writers do get a fee for their scripts. It’s not like they work for free and have to wait for royalty checks to make money.

    Now I really like the idea that creators should participate in the success of their creation. I think it’s a good thing and a fair thing.

    But they shouldn’t act like it’s a common practice.

    It’s very uncommon for people to be paid past their salary. Just like it’s uncommon for people to be fed on the job the way movie production people are.

  • Rena Moretti

    Is this a thought provoking article or what?

    One more point: the networks are always trying to pin their declining fortunes on changing tastes of the public and competition.

    While competition does matter, one thing the networks (and the WGA for that matter) never talk about is quality.

    This year’s declining ratings for the networks can be pinned 100% on bad quality. They hired bad producers to make bad shows. They got bad ratings. Simple as that.

    I’ll give you two examples:

    When you hire a David Eick and let him do to Bionic woman what he did to Battlestar Galactica, a low-rated show even for cable that audiences have sampled and soundly rejected, the low ratings were a given.

    Criminal Minds has lost 4-6 million viewers this year. It was caused by Mandy Patinkin leaving and the quality of the show collapsing at the same time. It wasn’t caused by the internet or by competition from cable. It was caused by shoddy writing and directing (ie. producing) and by the bad luck of losing a great actor to still unknown reasons.

    In other words, declines are not inevitable, and if they were, the scale of those declines are a function of the quality of the networks’ offerings.

    When you don’t program Saturday Night, you’re not giving yourself the chance to find that diamond in the rough.

  • http://tvbythenumbers.com Robert Seidman

    Rena, where are you getting your data? Your math isn't working for me. Criminal Minds is down, but when I do comprable year over year comparisons (new episodes vs new episodes) the decreases seem to be less than 2 million viewers.

    I can find weeks where CSI is down more than 4 million, and I can find stuff like that for just about any show, from any network. While I wouldn't attribute it (at least not completely) to the causes you suggest, it appears to be a trend and not a good one.

  • http://tvbythenumbers.com Robert Seidman

    Rena, where are you getting your data? Your math isn’t working for me. Criminal Minds is down, but when I do comprable year over year comparisons (new episodes vs new episodes) the decreases seem to be less than 2 million viewers.

    I can find weeks where CSI is down more than 4 million, and I can find stuff like that for just about any show, from any network. While I wouldn’t attribute it (at least not completely) to the causes you suggest, it appears to be a trend and not a good one.

  • Rena Moretti

    Robert, I compared the ratings of Criminal Minds before the American Idol premiere, which is more telling than comparing the early season to the average.

    It's possible Criminal Minds is going to keep all its viewers once Idol returns, but I doubt it.

    NCIS also gets its best ratings before Idol returns.

    I'm doing this from memory, but I think I'm right on that.

    Shows age, and usually they don't age well (NCIS is a good, but rare, counter-example of that).

    To give another example, the fact that ER is attracting fewer than half the audience it did at its height, has a lot to do with the fact most of their beloved performers have left and that there are only so many compelling medical stories to tell in that context.

    CSI suffered from the “brain drain” of CSI Miami and CSI:NY.

    I guess the point I am making is that quality counts for a lot and that the networks do their best to spin every rating drop to some societal trend they have no control over.

    They do have control over quality, but this year have failed to launch any real hit (I'm still holding out hope for Life and WMC if they are nurtured properly).

  • Rena Moretti

    If you don't mind an aside, let me thank you guys for this great site.

    Kudos!!

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