Striking writers wield pen, and new sword

December 11, 2007|By CLARENCE PAGE

As one who writes for a living, I find it gratifying that almost two-thirds of the public say they support the writers strike.

The TV and movie writers, represented by the Writers Guild of America, walked out in early November. The move by the 12,000-member union shut down the production of more than a dozen sitcoms and almost all late-night entertainment shows.

Recent polls by Pepperdine University, Fox News, SurveyUSA and the show business newspaper Variety showed widespread public support for the writers. At a time when organized labor seems to be flat on its back, that sounds like a blow for old-style, industrial-age solidarity with what the entertainment industry calls the "creative" types.

Or maybe it's a backlash against the corporate bigwigs and their obviously low regard for good writing. Gone are the days when Hollywood lured literary giants such as F. Scott Fitzgerald, Dorothy Parker or William Faulkner to give the place a little class. With notable exceptions such as HBO's The Wire or NBC's 30 Rock, writers get no respect.

"In television, you are one of two things, either a beggar or a chooser," the late NBC programming genius Brandon Tartikoff once said. "If you want to create, you are by definition a beggar." I learned a taste of that during my own brief spell in a network-owned TV news shop in Chicago. There were certain unions that struck terror into the hearts of TV management. The Writers Guild was not one of them.

This year's strike, the guild's first since its five-month walkout in 1988, is an effort to stop begging and start demanding. What's interesting is how effectively the guild has harnessed the power of the new media, which lies at the heart of the dispute with the networks and big media giants, particularly the Internet.

Many issues are on the table, but both sides reached an impasse over a new demand. The writers want a slice, just a tiny 2.5 percent, of the money that media conglomerates are making from reuse of their material on the Internet, smart phones, iTunes, movie downloads and other viewing. They also want a share of DVD sale profits that's larger than the 0.36 percent for which they settled in 1988.

The media companies claim they can't negotiate a share of Internet profits because they have no idea how much this new technology will earn. Yet even we home viewers know that they must be earning something, judging by the ads that pop up on the TV networks' heavily promoted Web sites.

That's where the writers have given a new spin to this strike by doing what they do best: writing. They've written and produced dozens of clever videos to boil down the complicated strike issues into terms that even dimwits like me can understand.

Then they post them on YouTube, among other Web sites. Three of the best are titled "Voices of Uncertainty," "Why We Fight" and "Not the Daily Show, with Some Writer." That last one is produced by striking writers from The Daily Show with Jon Stewart. Each is highlighted by sound bites from major media corporate heads, such as Rupert Murdoch of News Corp. and Sumner Redstone of Viacom, boasting to investors and others about the billions of dollars per year that digital technology is beginning to bring in.

There's nothing new about bosses pleading poverty to their workers while boasting to investors about how much their companies are rolling in dough. What's new is the ability of strikers to show both faces of their employers to the world via the Web.

It appears to be having an effect. Negotiators for the media conglomerates last week announced they were hiring a team of highly paid spin doctors to polish up their public image. Most of us viewers would settle for a few more shows that didn't insult our intelligence.

Clarence Page is a columnist for the Chicago Tribune. His column appears Tuesdays and Fridays in The Sun. His e-mail is cptime@aol.com.

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