Hollywood writers have the upper hand in this strike

Hollywood writers have the upper hand in this strike

The Writer’s Guild of America—i.e. the people who write the TV and movie scripts—are on strike. Their most fundamental demand is that they want a share in the profits from distribution using new media of the products they have a hand in creating. While studios and networks claim that Internet distribution is making them nothing, this is contradicted by their own boasts to investors and each other that they’re raking in millions and have the potential to make even more.

This isn’t the first time Hollywood writers have gone on strike. The WGA went on strike in 1988 over the then-new media: VHS and later DVD. I recall buying at the time an original Star Trek script from David Gerrold, who was selling them on Compuserve to raise funds while he was on strike.

The old Hollywood system is a dying dinosaur and the networks and studios better figure it out before they’re just fossilized bones on display in some museum.

Anyway, I wonder if the networks and studios have made a critical error. For one thing, audiences have a more direct connection to the people who make their favorite shows than ever before. Consider, many writers and producers have blogs, make podcasts, do DVD commentary tracks. The fans know the people who write the words their favorite characters say and treat them with the same adulation they give to the actors who portray those characters. The writers and fans have a relationship that doesn’t really include the studios and networks.

For another thing, the networks have much less control over information about the strike. In the 80s, TV news meant ABC, NBC, or CBS and if you didn’t get your news there, you got in from one or two local newspapers. That model is now antiquated. Not only are there twice as many 24/7 news networks and access to the web sites of newspapers around the world, but the writers can address the people directly. The umbrella organization United Hollywood has been producing extremely professional (no, duh!), informative, and entertaining videos telling their side of the story and exposing the other side and putting those videos on YouTube where they’re getting tens of thousands of views.

There’s another danger as well for both sides, but for the networks especially. Once the last of the new episodes are gone and all that’s left on TV are reruns, pilots that didn’t make it, and reality shows, people are going to stop watching TV by droves. The fact is that people just don’t need TV to entertain themselves the way they once did. I hear all the time of people in their 20s who don’t even own televisions except to watch sports maybe. Instead they get all their entertainment online, whether through podcasts or blogs or webisodes of direct-to-Internet programming. Once those people are lost, will they come back?

And perhaps the writers and producers will discover that they don’t need networks after all. Within the next half-decade we’re going to be able to download or stream high-definition quality content direct to our computers or living-room TVs. In fact, there are private beta tests of such services even now. Why would, say, Joss Whedon need a TV network to broadcast a new “Firefly” series if he could just rent some Web servers and put it online? The cost-per-viewer for online broadcasting is much lower and he could still sell advertising.

Sure that latter scenario is a still in the future, but it’s not a distant future. In fact, sites like MySpace are already producing original dramatic series. They’re not the same as regular TV, but it’s only a matter of time.

The old Hollywood system is a dying dinosaur and the networks and studios better figure it out before they’re just fossilized bones on display in some museum. Meanwhile, in the long term maybe the best thing that could happen to the writers is that they embrace the inevitable future now. This may be the last time they ever have to go on strike against the networks and in that case we will all benefit.