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.

 
  • 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).

  • Diana

    As a writer who works outside the movie/TV industry, I have to say the on-going strike seems extremely foolish for the WGA. Your article makes excellent points regarding the accelerated shift to reality TV. I'm not a huge fan of unscripted television although I shamefully confess to being hooked on a few shows. But from the position of TV execs, reality programming seems pretty enticing, and the WGA needs to realize that in the long run they may be putting more of their union members out of work. If the strike continues, reality programming may become the norm, which means fewer writing jobs.

    As a TV viewer, I'd hate to see that happen. A truly well-written show stays in my memory for years to come while reality TV feels like time wasted and is gone from my mind within a few days. As Dom points out, no one is going to buy DVDs of reality TV from years past. Who cares? But we're still purchasing DVDs of old favorites among scripted programs long after the shows have ended. Perhaps the network execs should think about that.

    Frankly, I want to see the writers get more money. They make a better wage already than most of us who earn by writing, but I agree that residuals need to be more than the current miniscule amount. I simply would prefer WGA to consider what a lengthy strike means down the road. I'm all for an increase in writers' benefits–just not at the expense of scripted programming.

  • Rena Moretti

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

    Kudos!!

  • Diana

    As a writer who works outside the movie/TV industry, I have to say the on-going strike seems extremely foolish for the WGA. Your article makes excellent points regarding the accelerated shift to reality TV. I’m not a huge fan of unscripted television although I shamefully confess to being hooked on a few shows. But from the position of TV execs, reality programming seems pretty enticing, and the WGA needs to realize that in the long run they may be putting more of their union members out of work. If the strike continues, reality programming may become the norm, which means fewer writing jobs.

    As a TV viewer, I’d hate to see that happen. A truly well-written show stays in my memory for years to come while reality TV feels like time wasted and is gone from my mind within a few days. As Dom points out, no one is going to buy DVDs of reality TV from years past. Who cares? But we’re still purchasing DVDs of old favorites among scripted programs long after the shows have ended. Perhaps the network execs should think about that.

    Frankly, I want to see the writers get more money. They make a better wage already than most of us who earn by writing, but I agree that residuals need to be more than the current miniscule amount. I simply would prefer WGA to consider what a lengthy strike means down the road. I’m all for an increase in writers’ benefits–just not at the expense of scripted programming.

  • Tracy Smith

    With both sides not talking, the damage is being inflicted on a lot of hard working people. The real problem is the actual “value” of a program being defined. Without actual numbers, not “formulated numbers” from percentages, no one actually knows what a show is worth. It is a perceived value from an educated guess. In film, DVD, The Internet, Satellite, Cable, and DVR, actual numbers can be obtained. But broadcast is a bit of a guess. Which means the salaries, and residuals are formulated on a factor that can't be totally defined. How is a producer, writer, talent or anyone else in our industry really able to figure out what they are worth? The best thing for everyone would be to find the answer on how to do business in absolute reality. The current business model is antiquated. Both the writers and producers have their points and they are valid. But how can they resolve the issue, without actual “price per contact” numbers involved?
    Our industry has always had it's perceived sparkle, the “glamour”. Honestly speaking, this glamour is how the audience sees us. We need to concentrate on serving them, the audience, they are our consumer. Find out the real numbers of our audience. The money can then be properly adjusted from there, without any of the parties taking too much flagrant risk. With all of us understanding how important cash flow is, I don't think there is anyone on either side who would not want to solve this problem fairly. They just need the real information.

  • Rena Moretti

    Tracy:

    You write: “In film, DVD, The Internet, Satellite, Cable, and DVR, actual numbers can be obtained. But broadcast is a bit of a guess.”

    The reverse is actually true. There are no reliable numbers for film. Box Office numbers are self-reported by the studios and can be (and are in my opinion) manipulated for effect (remember The Omen grossing 6,666,666 dollars?!)

    The Nielsen ratings are the only thing that comes close to reliable numbers because they are gathered directly from a sample of the public. The only unreliability comes from the smallness of the sample (the error rate exceed what many shows, particularly on cable average in viewers) and the fact that it's extremely difficult to assemble a reliable sample of human beings (if only for the fact that many people don't want to be bothered).

    That being said, the Nielsen ratings are immeasurably more reliable than DVD numbers where reporting is left entirely to the studios and the numbers they mention are essentially completely arbitrary and pulled out of a hat (again as far as I can tell).

    The lack of reliable accounting is a big part of the problem between the studios and the unions as they lead to absurd situations like residuals being paid on projects that are still losing money (but then again the studios essentially claim every project loses money!!)

    As long as a system can't be devised to account honestly for film and TV profits, the residual system will always be under attack.

  • Tracy Smith

    With both sides not talking, the damage is being inflicted on a lot of hard working people. The real problem is the actual “value” of a program being defined. Without actual numbers, not “formulated numbers” from percentages, no one actually knows what a show is worth. It is a perceived value from an educated guess. In film, DVD, The Internet, Satellite, Cable, and DVR, actual numbers can be obtained. But broadcast is a bit of a guess. Which means the salaries, and residuals are formulated on a factor that can’t be totally defined. How is a producer, writer, talent or anyone else in our industry really able to figure out what they are worth? The best thing for everyone would be to find the answer on how to do business in absolute reality. The current business model is antiquated. Both the writers and producers have their points and they are valid. But how can they resolve the issue, without actual “price per contact” numbers involved?
    Our industry has always had it’s perceived sparkle, the “glamour”. Honestly speaking, this glamour is how the audience sees us. We need to concentrate on serving them, the audience, they are our consumer. Find out the real numbers of our audience. The money can then be properly adjusted from there, without any of the parties taking too much flagrant risk. With all of us understanding how important cash flow is, I don’t think there is anyone on either side who would not want to solve this problem fairly. They just need the real information.

  • Rena Moretti

    Tracy:

    You write: “In film, DVD, The Internet, Satellite, Cable, and DVR, actual numbers can be obtained. But broadcast is a bit of a guess.”

    The reverse is actually true. There are no reliable numbers for film. Box Office numbers are self-reported by the studios and can be (and are in my opinion) manipulated for effect (remember The Omen grossing 6,666,666 dollars?!)

    The Nielsen ratings are the only thing that comes close to reliable numbers because they are gathered directly from a sample of the public. The only unreliability comes from the smallness of the sample (the error rate exceed what many shows, particularly on cable average in viewers) and the fact that it’s extremely difficult to assemble a reliable sample of human beings (if only for the fact that many people don’t want to be bothered).

    That being said, the Nielsen ratings are immeasurably more reliable than DVD numbers where reporting is left entirely to the studios and the numbers they mention are essentially completely arbitrary and pulled out of a hat (again as far as I can tell).

    The lack of reliable accounting is a big part of the problem between the studios and the unions as they lead to absurd situations like residuals being paid on projects that are still losing money (but then again the studios essentially claim every project loses money!!)

    As long as a system can’t be devised to account honestly for film and TV profits, the residual system will always be under attack.

  • Tracy Smith

    Rena,
    You and I agree on the manipulation factor. And I know the Nielsen ratings take a samples from real people. What I didn't realize is what you said about DVD and Film sales, you are right. In my market when overnight's started they had three hundred meters sampling a population of 2 million, diaries aside, this left a huge margin for error.
    Reliable accounting and reporting is the problem. Without this, how can value be determined or returned? It's not just in the writer's part of the business, The value system is a bit creative in and of itself.
    All of us in the industry take part in building entertainment, or information products. They are for a consumer. Without the consumer buying, watching, or downloading, our products, they have no actual market value. (I hate saying that, but it's true)
    If we built cars or toys, our income would be based on the wholesale or retail sales of those products. And the net gain would be realized after the costs of building the car or toy are taken into account.
    In essence a fair and reasonable wage for writing, creating, directing, editing, acting, whatever it may be should be paid to build the product. This is the risk. The risk needs to be responsibly minimized. The sales should pay back the investment, plus a reasonable percentage for those who took the risk financing it. The creative residuals also get paid at a percentage that takes into account the upfront payments for the “labor” portion of the job and based on the actual performance of the property, and nothing more. If the product is a “hit” everyone wins. (and it becomes a bonus) If not, the risk is minimized for all. Right now if a product fails the producing company is bearing the bulk of the risk, but a lot of folks just walked off with millions in their pocket prior to actual performance of the product.
    (I know this is over simplified but I hope it illustrates the point.)
    Now here is the stunner, If a car salesman makes a sale, and that sale is returned, does he get to keep the commission? Absolutely not. Now he's in a position to have to make up for the loss, and get ahead.
    In our business we have created so many strange “performance liability” situations. No one has the actual truth. And lots of people are getting fees, and the performance factors are ignored. There are not a lot of other business folks who could survive if their business is run the way the Film and Television industry is currently running. This plus the hyperbole we feed ourselves, is causing a huge problem in doing business not just with the world, but with ourselves.

    Please don't get me wrong. I love this business. It is my passion to create. In my part of the world, I've been involved for 21 years, and loved most of it. There are people on both sides of the strike I admire.
    I will make an appointment to watch a show written by certain writers, or a director, producer, or in the case of this interrupted season, a certain “consultant.”

    I know about the false statements of loss that are perpetrated, It is a really foul part of the industry and everyone knows it. That kind of thing also has to stop. It is quite simply, despicable.

    In my opinion, I would like us all to get serious about reforming our business models. And keep the industry sound for the future generations of Film and Television Professionals and Creatives.

    But most of all for the audience who pays for our products. It is time for a little less greed, a better approach, and a lot more wisdom.

    With Respect.

  • Tracy Smith

    Rena,
    You and I agree on the manipulation factor. And I know the Nielsen ratings take a samples from real people. What I didn’t realize is what you said about DVD and Film sales, you are right. In my market when overnight’s started they had three hundred meters sampling a population of 2 million, diaries aside, this left a huge margin for error.
    Reliable accounting and reporting is the problem. Without this, how can value be determined or returned? It’s not just in the writer’s part of the business, The value system is a bit creative in and of itself.
    All of us in the industry take part in building entertainment, or information products. They are for a consumer. Without the consumer buying, watching, or downloading, our products, they have no actual market value. (I hate saying that, but it’s true)
    If we built cars or toys, our income would be based on the wholesale or retail sales of those products. And the net gain would be realized after the costs of building the car or toy are taken into account.
    In essence a fair and reasonable wage for writing, creating, directing, editing, acting, whatever it may be should be paid to build the product. This is the risk. The risk needs to be responsibly minimized. The sales should pay back the investment, plus a reasonable percentage for those who took the risk financing it. The creative residuals also get paid at a percentage that takes into account the upfront payments for the “labor” portion of the job and based on the actual performance of the property, and nothing more. If the product is a “hit” everyone wins. (and it becomes a bonus) If not, the risk is minimized for all. Right now if a product fails the producing company is bearing the bulk of the risk, but a lot of folks just walked off with millions in their pocket prior to actual performance of the product.
    (I know this is over simplified but I hope it illustrates the point.)
    Now here is the stunner, If a car salesman makes a sale, and that sale is returned, does he get to keep the commission? Absolutely not. Now he’s in a position to have to make up for the loss, and get ahead.
    In our business we have created so many strange “performance liability” situations. No one has the actual truth. And lots of people are getting fees, and the performance factors are ignored. There are not a lot of other business folks who could survive if their business is run the way the Film and Television industry is currently running. This plus the hyperbole we feed ourselves, is causing a huge problem in doing business not just with the world, but with ourselves.

    Please don’t get me wrong. I love this business. It is my passion to create. In my part of the world, I’ve been involved for 21 years, and loved most of it. There are people on both sides of the strike I admire.
    I will make an appointment to watch a show written by certain writers, or a director, producer, or in the case of this interrupted season, a certain “consultant.”

    I know about the false statements of loss that are perpetrated, It is a really foul part of the industry and everyone knows it. That kind of thing also has to stop. It is quite simply, despicable.

    In my opinion, I would like us all to get serious about reforming our business models. And keep the industry sound for the future generations of Film and Television Professionals and Creatives.

    But most of all for the audience who pays for our products. It is time for a little less greed, a better approach, and a lot more wisdom.

    With Respect.

  • Rena Moretti

    Thank you Tracy for your very thought full post.

    From where I stand, the WGA negotiations have been way too much over short-term gains and respect and not enough about the long-term health of the industry.

    To give you one example, the WGA is making a huge point out of getting a fair share of internet revenue that hasn't materialized anywhere outside of studio Pr releases, but they are not even talking at all about the fact Saturday Night have been de-programmed on the major networks.

    Not having Saturday Night (and Jeff Zucker would like to de-program 8-9 every day!) was a major loss of well-paid jobs for the WGA, but somehow the WGA leadership is more concerned about the internet.

    It makes one very pessimistic about the future financial health of all involved in the film industry.

  • Rena Moretti

    Thank you Tracy for your very thought full post.

    From where I stand, the WGA negotiations have been way too much over short-term gains and respect and not enough about the long-term health of the industry.

    To give you one example, the WGA is making a huge point out of getting a fair share of internet revenue that hasn’t materialized anywhere outside of studio Pr releases, but they are not even talking at all about the fact Saturday Night have been de-programmed on the major networks.

    Not having Saturday Night (and Jeff Zucker would like to de-program 8-9 every day!) was a major loss of well-paid jobs for the WGA, but somehow the WGA leadership is more concerned about the internet.

    It makes one very pessimistic about the future financial health of all involved in the film industry.

  • Tracy Smith

    Rena,
    I don't know if anyone will see this post, but if you do….
    I am the owner of a small Entertainment and Production Company. Before, I was a CBS O and O Creative Services Producer. Specializing in programming outside of News, and Promotions. I am not a member of any guild. I've definitely had my experiences at using my writing skills to manipulate. And when the awards came, I bought into my own B.S. In the above post I mentioned being sold on our own “hyperbole”. I was not casually making a statement about others. I know exactly how we can have our ego stroked by our “work”. And how the instantaneous gratification factors available in our industry can distort your perception. I think it was written in a “Star Trek” episode, “For the World is Hollow, and I have touched the Sky”. I believe the strike to be a bit of this. It's not that the WGA is a lousy union, they are not. Nor are the Studio Execs total monsters.
    The WGA has made a strategic error. The guild will not stop this industry, if a solution cannot be reached, New ways and New talent will eventually be sought. It might even rise somewhere else besides Hollywood. It's a basic lesson from Sun Tzu “only fight when you can win”. If the strike goes on long enough, and it becomes a war of attrition, the person with most wins, everyone else loses. And if that happens, everything that was built so far, goes a way, and we start over.
    I am angry at how both sides are handling it right now. I have a freelance member of my staff returning to our state, because he just lost his residence in Hollywood because of the strike. It's not cheap to live there, let alone listen to some fairly financially successful folks, talk about “more”, “our” and “my”. I did not like the depressed tone of his voice when he called me about finding work. It's the holidays, and that just flat out sucks.
    If the writers were getting “graphite lung”, or the producers were really being monsters, I would probably be a little less angry.
    Didn't one of those folks on the picket lines write “There is only so much fortune a man can have”? Another one on the other side, financed those words. I think they all made great money with that.
    The reality of this situation is not a battle of writers vs. studios. Work was stopped, people are losing their jobs, holidays are destroyed. Homes lost. Medical Benefits are going away. For a few percentage points over New Media? One that no one can say if it is a viewer shift, or new profit? (That equals potential greed on both sides in relation to current earnings)
    There is a war on. 1 million people were without power last week in freezing weather. Katrina victims are still trying to recover. Then there's that pesky mortgage issue. Is new media really worth an actual strike, or could it have been the one point that was “tabled” for future negotiations? As writers and producers, we are always told to “think outside the box.” As of right now, there is more harm than good. It's time to get seriously real and get people back to work!

    Good Will, Good Faith, Honor, and Integrity, that's what's needed.
    ….those are the things we make the movies and television about!!!!

  • Tracy Smith

    Rena,
    I don’t know if anyone will see this post, but if you do….
    I am the owner of a small Entertainment and Production Company. Before, I was a CBS O and O Creative Services Producer. Specializing in programming outside of News, and Promotions. I am not a member of any guild. I’ve definitely had my experiences at using my writing skills to manipulate. And when the awards came, I bought into my own B.S. In the above post I mentioned being sold on our own “hyperbole”. I was not casually making a statement about others. I know exactly how we can have our ego stroked by our “work”. And how the instantaneous gratification factors available in our industry can distort your perception. I think it was written in a “Star Trek” episode, “For the World is Hollow, and I have touched the Sky”. I believe the strike to be a bit of this. It’s not that the WGA is a lousy union, they are not. Nor are the Studio Execs total monsters.
    The WGA has made a strategic error. The guild will not stop this industry, if a solution cannot be reached, New ways and New talent will eventually be sought. It might even rise somewhere else besides Hollywood. It’s a basic lesson from Sun Tzu “only fight when you can win”. If the strike goes on long enough, and it becomes a war of attrition, the person with most wins, everyone else loses. And if that happens, everything that was built so far, goes a way, and we start over.
    I am angry at how both sides are handling it right now. I have a freelance member of my staff returning to our state, because he just lost his residence in Hollywood because of the strike. It’s not cheap to live there, let alone listen to some fairly financially successful folks, talk about “more”, “our” and “my”. I did not like the depressed tone of his voice when he called me about finding work. It’s the holidays, and that just flat out sucks.
    If the writers were getting “graphite lung”, or the producers were really being monsters, I would probably be a little less angry.
    Didn’t one of those folks on the picket lines write “There is only so much fortune a man can have”? Another one on the other side, financed those words. I think they all made great money with that.
    The reality of this situation is not a battle of writers vs. studios. Work was stopped, people are losing their jobs, holidays are destroyed. Homes lost. Medical Benefits are going away. For a few percentage points over New Media? One that no one can say if it is a viewer shift, or new profit? (That equals potential greed on both sides in relation to current earnings)
    There is a war on. 1 million people were without power last week in freezing weather. Katrina victims are still trying to recover. Then there’s that pesky mortgage issue. Is new media really worth an actual strike, or could it have been the one point that was “tabled” for future negotiations? As writers and producers, we are always told to “think outside the box.” As of right now, there is more harm than good. It’s time to get seriously real and get people back to work!

    Good Will, Good Faith, Honor, and Integrity, that’s what’s needed.
    ….those are the things we make the movies and television about!!!!

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