TV on Strike: Why Hollywood Went to War Over the Internet. By Cynthia Littleton.
Syracuse: Syracuse University Press, 2013.
Lasting an unprecedented 100 days, and grinding TV and film production to a halt on both coasts, the Writers’ Guild strike of the 2007-8 TV season had both immediate and lasting effects on the industry; few were foreseen, intended, or desired.
2007 was the due date for the labor contract between the Writer’s Guild of America (WGA) and the Alliance of Motion Picture and Television Producers (AMPTP). Everyone in the industry knew that the negotiations with WGA, as well as the Directors and Studio Actors’ Guilds (DGA and SAG) were coming at a pivotal moment. In the digital era, thanks to downloads, file-sharing, DVRs, streaming, and DVDs, people were increasingly watching content on their own schedule, while loyalty to network schedules, and patience for ads, were steadily decreasing. Technological innovations were inexorably changing every facet of how TV and movies were made, consumed, and financially managed.
In the 1980s, with the advent of home video, the AMPTP negotiated an 80/20 formula for calculating residual payments: studios took 80% of the revenue, leaving 20% residuals for everyone else. This translated to a share of about 1.5% for writers. The AMPTP began bargaining in 2007 from the standpoint that digital content–which they claimed was “promotional”–was neither profitable, nor subject to residual policies. The AMPTP stubbornly refused to budge on the 80/20 policy. Writers, the majority of whom worked contract to contract for modest wages (almost half earn less than $100,000 year) and little job security, “have long insisted that residuals should be viewed not as bonus income but as part of a writer’s base compensation” (69).
The WGA struck in November of 2007. While the studios had stockpiled scripts and were able to continue some production through January, the strike proved majorly disruptive. All live shows went dark; networks increasingly relied on unscripted TV, and placed production of returning shows and development of new shows for the fall was put on hold. Even the Golden Globe Awards were essentially cancelled as members of the guilds boycotted them.
Littleton’s sympathies are clearly with the writers, and she portrays the studio heads as out of touch both with the new media and the creative people who fuel it. The studio executives were caught flat-footed, as the WGA established and maintained strong support by exploiting precisely the technology that was at issue: blogs, videos, and social media. And yet the AMPTP still had the upper hand in the dispute–until the other guilds began their own contract negotiations.
In particular, the DGA worked quietly on its own to come up with new proposals for residual compensation based on a 100% formula. In January 2008, the DGA came to an agreement with AMPTP, with fair and rational terms for compensation, as well as commitments from AMPTP to be more open about the financial details underpinning their decision-making. The DGA were also careful not to repeat the mistakes of painting themselves into a corner as they and the other guilds had done in the ‘80s with home video–given the rapidly changing nature of new media, and the lack of predictability of t how the business would change in the future. All of these conditions had to be up for renegotiation with the next contracts. The DGA, acting largely out of self-interest, had nevertheless set a good precedent. Faced with the potential catastrophe of a boycotted Academy Awards ceremony, and wearied from the long strike, both WGA and AMPTP quickly worked out terms based on the DGA agreement, and the strike was called off in February 2008.
Although the WGA was satisfied, arguably, it had risked and lost far more than the studios had. The strike itself caused the studios to re-organize and retrench, especially by cutting back on writers’ contracts, and relying more heavily on unscripted TV. Because the strike ended roughly the same time as the overall economy went into recession, many of these cutbacks have remained. Littleton estimates that writers “collectively lost $100 million” in wages during the strike that they have yet to recoup. Despite improved residual payments, there is, simply, less work available. Nevertheless, according to Littleton, “…events proved that the WGA was…right to demand that the foundation for compensation be established” (259). If nothing else, the labor action of the WGA (and DGA and SAG) changed the climate in the industry, drawing attention to the need for both the studios and creatives to adapt to the new media environment.
Littleton’s account is detailed, and she offers a thorough explanation of the strike, its causes, and its consequences. However, while Littleton is a solid reporter, she does not have the narrative skills to do this story justice. The dispute was driven by Hollywood personalities, but Littleton’s details the bargaining process with such minutiae that personalities, drama, emotion, even the main issues are often obscured. Moreover, Littleton’s focus is exclusively on the strike, and she offers little context to situate the event in relation to the history of the labor movement, or the film industry. For serious scholars studying the dispute, the book will be quite useful; undergraduates and casual readers will turn to Wikipedia for a more efficient summary.
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