The Writers Guild of America voted this week to end a 100-day strike that left many television shows in limbo. So did they get what they bargained for? NPR’s Kim Masters says the Guild has successfully spun the deal as a victory.
The Writers Guild of America voted this week to end a 100-day strike that left many TV shows in limbo and many TV viewers in search of other entertainment options. The Guild settled its bitter dispute with the Alliance of Motion Picture and Television Producers, reaching a compromise over Internet revenue sharing. But was it worth it? Many media outlets reported that writers will eventually get two percent of the gross ad money from TV shows streamed on the Web.
But look closely. The, quote, “gross” is in fact, fixed at $40,000, at least for this contract, which means the writer gets $800 even if the actual gross turns out to be higher.
Kim Masters covers the entertainment business for NPR. She says the Writers Guild has successfully hyped this deal as a victory and both the Guild members and the press were eager to play along. KIM MASTERS: What they're getting, as you pointed out, is two percent of 40,000 dollars because the deal stipulates that the ad revenue will be whatever it really is, 40,000 dollars, for the purposes of this contract. And, as you pointed out, that comes out to a few hundred dollars.
What they got is they have now theoretically got a chance to look at the books and see how much ad revenue really is thrown off when an episode is streamed on the Internet and then next time they will try to bargain and make that a more meaningful – if it turns out that 40,000 is low, they'll try to make it a more meaningful actual percentage. BOB GARFIELD: So at a minimum they've set a precedent for the next contract cycle in three years. KIM MASTERS: Yeah. It’s like a conceptual precedent. [LAUGHS] It’s not really a percentage. [BOB LAUGHS] But the word percentage appears in the deal. It’s a little bit of a sleight of hand. Even when they get paid for the streaming video, there is a period of about three weeks where the studios just get to stream those videos without paying them anything.
And you would imagine that if The Office is broadcast and you missed it and you wanted to watch it online, you’re probably going to watch it in that window.
So, there are all sorts of exceptions all across the board. The deal is incredibly complicated and hardly one where you can say, yes, the writers won. But, you know, they've spun it. [LAUGHS] BOB GARFIELD: There has been so much turbulence in broadcast television mostly having to do with audience fragmentation. That seems to have been vastly exacerbated by the writers’ strike. What happened to viewers? KIM MASTERS: During the strike there were increased DVD rentals, a little pop in that. But online is where viewers appear to be headed and it’s also where the advertising dollars appear to be headed. The networks are grappling with this. They don't have any answers, and they're flailing.
And that’s partly, I think, the feeling that that is inevitable is why the strike was so bitterly fought, because the feeling is that’s where it’s all headed. It’s all headed the Internet. And what will business be like then if, as now, the networks can't command the same kind of ad dollars from the Internet as they do for broadcasting things over the air? BOB GARFIELD: On this show and elsewhere, I've talked quite a bit about the chaos that’s going on in the world of entertainment. And you've just put your finger on a big part of it. You know, who will be able to fund the kind of entertainment that we've all grown accustomed to on broadcast television and cable as it gravitates towards the ultimately fragmented universe of the Internet?
During the writers’ strike we saw an existing trend, reality programming, versus scripted sitcoms and dramas, taking over because it can be done a lot more cheaply. And I'm curious to know if you think that the networks will be producing, you know, one or two shows like Grey’s Anatomy and otherwise all reality all the time. KIM MASTERS: What they're going to try to do is maintain their identity as cheaply as possible. And the one we see this in most clearly right now is NBC. NBC is putting stuff on its air - or planning to - that really would be considered cable fare, in some cases is cable fare. They're putting on Gladiator. They're putting on all sorts of inexpensive reality.
And what they've said that they want to do is to put in enough sort of high-profile stuff, like Heroes or The Office, that’s just enough expensive stuff to get away with the really cheap stuff the rest of the time. And I think it’s going to be kind of interesting to see how far can NBC, which is already in last place [LAUGHS] push this. BOB GARFIELD: You know, during the course of the strike, I kept thinking about the titanic battles between the United Auto Workers and General Motors, Ford and Chrysler during their heyday in which both sides were, you know, making vast amount of money, very, very high wages for very, very profitable businesses. But with the incursions of the Japanese and the Koreans and the Germans, the business of making cars in the United States began to founder.
Are we witnessing a repeat of the destruction of an industry affecting, you know, both sides of it? KIM MASTERS: That is certainly the fear. The problem from the standpoint of, you know, labor relations is on the one hand these companies go to Wall Street and say, hey, you know, we expect to make a billion dollars from the Internet. And then they turn around and tell the writers and the actors, gee, we don't know what the Internet is. We don't know what we're going to get from that.
So they [LAUGHS], you know, they're spinning one way on Wall Street and the other with the labor, and it becomes a difficult thing to reconcile. BOB GARFIELD: Kim, thanks so much for joining us. KIM MASTERS: Thank you. BOB GARFIELD: Kim Masters covers the business of entertainment for NPR. She also writes the Hollywoodland blog on Slate.com.