The Writer’s Strike and New Media

Posted on November 7, 2007
Filed Under movies, podcasting, tv | 7 Comments

In my first job out of college as a chemist, I worked in a factory. I was in QC and worked alongside lab technicians that were unionized. A lot of progressives have a love of unions that I don’t share because I saw a lot of pure human sorriness excused by the union rules. I watched guys set up a test that took an hour to run and 50 minutes into it would abandon it because it was their break time. They’d refuse to wait 10 minutes to break, and just let the test get ruined and need to be restarted later. I felt the union engendered a very much “what do I care?” attitude between the workers and their work.

Nearly 20 years on, I actually have flipped a lot of that feeling. I understand that unionizing takes the flexibility out of what you do, reduces the ability of the highest performers to more of a pack norm with the rigidity. I also have realized that no one does that lightly, and those workers willing to give up yet more of their money in union dues and sacrifice some of their advancement are doing it for a reason. Only when you are really getting screwed hard are you willing to organize and make those sacrifices. Whether it is for safety or working conditions or benefits or pay, unless you are seriously shafted as a group it makes no sense to introduce another player between you and your money. Entertainment industry writers are a group like that. They are the most poorly treated participants on the creative side of the house. They’ve had to unionize to protect themselves and now they think they need to strike to protect themselves.

I’ve seen lots of commentary on this strike from the informed participants like Ken Levine (1, 2, 3) or John Rogers (1, 2), but also from the uninformed and kind of dumb.

My friend CC Chapman weighed in and mused about what the strike means for new media. He has two points, one good and one heart-rendingly bad. If the strike is protracted and this means a drastic slowdown of new shows produced by Hollywood, that would be a wise time for the independent new media producer, podcaster or vlogger or whatever to try to make a splash. Fair game and when the entertainment vacuum arises, trying to suggest to the public at large that your show could fill that is cool. What is not cool is his second suggestion – that Hollywood look to new media as a source of non-unionized scab writers to work on their shows. Bad idea, really really fucking tragically horrible insane idea.

First, it is bad on the moral and ethical level. When these writers are striking to get their compensation in line with the rest of the Hollywood creative personnel, it is not your business to get into that and undercut their position. They live here, you are a tourist. What if you are at lunch and ask your boss for a raise, and the waiter overhears and says “Hell, I’ll do that job for 40% less than what you pay him/her!” If you slapped that waiter with a breadstick, he had it coming. That’s what you are doing, if you get into this you deserve to be slapped with whatever is handy.

Secondly, it is bad on a business level. If there is one thing I have found podcasters to be freakishly wiling to do, it is to work for free for the profits of others. Over and over and over again, I see this. Some company will arise, want work for free with some vague promise of possibly paying later if money flows, and new media people will flock to it, eager to work for nothing on the outside chance of getting paid or getting dubious promotion value from it. Have some goddamn self-respect, people. What the WGA is striking for is exactly that situation. 20 years ago, there was little money from home video and all the cash was in TV syndication so they were given a horrible deal on video sales with the promise of “We’ll take care of you if this ever makes money.” Oddly enough, when the money came in then no one was in a hurry to take less in order to give the writers more. Funny how that works.

On multiple occasions, I have received emails from someone “writing a book on podcasting.” They want me to submit a chapter. I always respond and ask if this is a paying gig, and they always come back with “Well, you’ll get a copy and the promotional value.” Nice. It’s cheaper for me to buy your book at Amazon than spend hours writing a chapter to get a free one. It’s not that I need the money per se, but I hate when people want to use my time, pay me nothing and profit from it. I’ve donated time in charity situations, but I’m not going to go work the counter at Starbuck’s for free. Way too many new media people don’t seem to view it like that, sign on to these work-for-nothing deals, devalue their own labor and that of their compatriots and basically screw the whole deal up. Either everyone is eating at the table, or no one is. It’s that simple.

So I think if new media people want to choose now to make a full court press on their promotions, it would be a wise time. If you are going to take your naive asses to Hollywood and write for pennies on the dollar and get an ever worse deal than the one the guild members are striking over, spare us all and don’t do it. You can’t negotiate a good deal in the podcast world where all the business people are relatively speaking gentle lambs. If you try in Hollywood, the sharks will eat you alive. So you will screw the existing writers for a chance to get screwed even worse yourself. Don’t do it.

Proactive update: Before I even published this, I see CC got a comment explaining the mechanics of why studios wouldn’t do this regardless. I’m publishing my post anyway because I always like to exhort the crowd not to give it away for free. If you want to be a successful whore, you can’t get there by being a slut first. That’s not a viable career progression.

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7 Responses to “The Writer’s Strike and New Media”

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  1. Derek Coward on November 7th, 2007 11:36 am

    “If you want to be a successful whore, you can’t get there by being a slut first.”

    Probably the funniest line I have read in a while.

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  3. Andre on November 7th, 2007 12:23 pm

    Right on. In my industry way to many people undercut their personal value in order to break in – doing something for free or for a name drop. The corporate people pray on young talent, getting them for next to nothing and exploiting the hell out of the them only to make themselves look better.

    Just remember that I am a corporate guy trying to give a new face to the white collars.

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  5. Shig the Unmentionable on November 7th, 2007 4:28 pm

    I’m in the process of breaking away from an audio theater troupe that treats all of its talent pretty much like that: you get a free copy of the work, bragging rights, and one (1) metric shitload of diddly squat. Any money that comes in goes to promotion, studio time, etc. If you’re not interested in lending us your voice/writing/production talents gratis, out of sheer love for the format, don’t come knocking.

    I’m considering starting my own company, with work produced on a sweat equity basis. You come work for me, and you don’t get paid anything up front (and neither do I, because I got nothing), but you own a share of the production based on the amount and nature of work you put in. If any money comes in from that work (and that’s a big if), you get a cut of it equivalent to your share percentage.

    I figure it’s OK to say “We’ll take care of you if this makes anything” if you put it in writing, in very clear terms. This seems to me like a fair way for a small-time community theater group to operate. Probably means I’m naively missing something, but it’ll be an interesting experiment.

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  7. C.C. on November 7th, 2007 4:42 pm

    I never meant to imply that people should be scabs of any sort. That always sucks as people get used and thrown away.

    But, if it did open up some doors for people to get some writing exposure AND get paid for it then I don’t see it as a bad thing.

    Doing it for free is NOT the right way to do it. And killer ending line my friend.

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  9. mike dunn on November 7th, 2007 6:06 pm

    having been way to close to this for a large part of my career, my only comment is that the studio production model (tv and film) in general is broken – what forced the writers to strike is just a symptom of the bigger issue, its a bloated industry without logical wage parity that needs to be rectified or replaced – and yes, certain aspects of new media could certainly replace certain aspects of traditional media, just watch a teenager make a media choice sometime…

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  11. Mark Forman on November 7th, 2007 6:47 pm

    Good post and closing line-wonder if I can use that next time my customers ask me for samples?

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  13. dave on November 8th, 2007 8:48 am

    Shig, I see a big difference between “We’ll cut the fair deal and give you a percentage – which for a long time and maybe forever will be a cut of nothing” and “We’ll give you this bad deal now because there is no money and *wink wink* we’ll fix it later.”

    People love that last line, which was really just an addenda from having seen that CC’s commenter made my post irrelevant. It’s true, though. To be clear, I’ll do a labor of love for no money. It’s unlikely that I love any company that much, or any stranger emailing me a proposal. You want free love labor, put in some time making me love you. It’s probably cheaper to just pay me, though.