The Writers' Strike: Doomsday for TV?

For those outside of Hollywood and NYC, the Writers Guild Strike probably seems distant, irrelevant, and maybe a bit superfluous. But soon enough everyone will feel its effects—in the short term (lots of re-runs, sports, and reality TV this winter) and also in long term, systemic shifts in the broadcast media landscape.

To quickly summarize what the strike is all about: in a word, Internet. Last time the WGA went on strike in 1988 it was over home video residuals (i.e. how much per video sold or rented does the writer get?). The debate today is in part over DVD residuals (because writers now get only 8 cents per DVD sold), but in most opinions, the days of DVDs are numbered. Thus, the real focus of the debate between writers and studios is compensation for Internet content. For every streamed or downloaded show on a network website, writers get nothing. This is a problem for them, but the networks refuse to budge.

In one of my classes last week, Greg Daniels (creator/show-runner for The Office) spoke to us about the strike. Earlier in the day he had been on the picket lines with other Office staff, which you can see in this video (he’s the guy with glasses). Daniels told us that the strike was all about show content on the Internet, which networks maintain is solely promotional/marketing in purpose, even though—according to Daniels—the ads on the network websites are twice as valuable per 1000 views as anything on TV. But are the writers seeing any of this money? Not a dime.

For obvious (albeit risky) reasons, the networks and their studios are not conceding or negotiating anything. They recognize that the immense money to be made online is the future, and thus they’re taking a hard-line proprietary stance. If the belligerent posturing continues, the strike could last at least as long as the ’88 strike (5 months) or maybe even longer. All your favorite shows will be relegated to reruns, reality shows will enjoy a reluctant renaissance, and American Idol’s ratings will go higher into the stratosphere than ever before.

In the meantime, the writing talent in Hollywood will be jobless… In theory. But the longer the strike goes on, the more I think the good writers will go elsewhere with their material. Everyone is pretty much in agreement about the fact that T.V. is inevitably going to move online. So why should writers wait for the networks? In the all-access, narrowcast, niche Internet, who needs broadcast networks? Writers may as well circumvent the networks entirely: acquire private financing from a third party, produce the shows independently, market them virally, and exhibit them online.

Lest you think made-for-the-Internet shows are still a long way off, think again. Marshall Herskovitz and Edward Zwick (My So Called Life, thirtysomething) have a new show called quarterlife that premiered on MySpace on Sunday and will be shown in 36 webisode installments on The twentysomething ensemble drama is a fictionalized serial that supplements a larger social-networking site for aspiring artists and creative people in their twenties. Sound like a brave new world? That’s because it is.

Television as we used to know it—a place where shows appeared on certain days and times that we had to tune in to, tape, or miss—is disappearing before our eyes. With Tivo, iTunes, webisodes, and online streaming, we are no longer tied down to a day, time or medium through which we consume media. We determine how we consume an episode of a show. It’s a completely me-centric media experience.

I’m convinced that we are just a few years out from a massive change in our very definition of television.

Soon we will buy most of our TV shows like we do a magazine—either by subscribing for a year or picking it up ala carte. For $20 or $30 bucks we will be able to buy a season of our favorite shows and have access to download or view them exclusively online. And this money would go directly to the people making the show—with no network or distribution middlemen. Thus, if J.J. Abrams announced a new, spinoff Lost series to be shown online to subscribers only, he could feasibly finance it completely himself. It would require Abrams to convince loyal Lost viewers (about 15 million in the U.S. alone) to shell out $20 for a “season pass” to view or download a 20-episode season. This would equal $300 million income for Abrams—more than enough to cover the show’s 3-4M/episode budget. And this is without any mention of advertiser revenue, which in the old model of T.V. was the one and only income source.

Essentially I’m suggesting a new model of entertainment-delivery that is funded solely through mini-contributions from millions of viewers. But of course, this is not a new model at all! It’s called the movies! T.V. and cinema have been converging for decades now in style. Now they are taking that last step of convergence in business: on-demand, web-based, ala-carte everything.

Call me crazy, but this is the future. The Writers' Strike is just hurrying it all along.