So here’s all you really need to know about the writer’s strike. Everything else is just local color – the spectacle of Tina Fey and John Oliver on a picket line at Rockefeller Center, Jay Leno delivering donuts or Jon Stewart allegedly paying every single production worker himself while the Daily Show is on ice, the giant inflatable rat essential to any New York work stoppage – but this is the nut graf, as it were:
The media companies and the writers did a deal two decades ago for home video sales. Writers get, I believe, .3% on home video sales. This was in 1984 – before the rise and fall of VHS, before Blockbuster, before DVD and the ability to sell somebody every season of an entire series, before iTunes and Blu-Ray and NetFlix – and it hasn’t changed since. Twenty years on, the writers want to reconsider this – and more importantly, they want to settle the issue of digital media now so that they won’t get overtaken by technology again.
The studios, by contrast, like the home sales residual right where it is – and they want to pay nothing for digital media while they “study the issue” for three years. Yep. While ABC is streaming Ugly Betty – with commercials! – on its website, while NBC and Fox are launching Hulu to compete with YouTube, while the head of NBC-Universal is decrying Apple for not letting them charge more for shows (even after the US version of The Office was basically saved in the cradle by iTunes sales), while every episode of The Daily Show with Jon Stewart is made available on Comedy Central’s website – with !-ing commercials! – while all this is going on, the studios are claiming that there is no revenue model for these distrubution methods, that they’re not making any money, and they need a few years to see what the market looks like before deciding how many pennies to throw the people who wrote the material in the first place.
The Jews have a word for this: chutzpah. For those of you who don’t speak old-school Yiddish, it basically means “the caliber of unmitigated gall that leads a man who’s killed his parents to beg the court for mercy because he’s an orphan.”
Look, there is no great Solomonic compromise here. There’s no splitting this baby. Either digital media is a salable commodity, or it’s not. If it is, then the creators of that intellectual property are entitled to some portion of compensation for that sale, because a 30-minute show with commercials is the same whether it’s on your laptop or on a broadcast network – the totals may be different, but there’s revenue, and a percentage model should work just the same for both.
But if digital media is NOT a salable commodity – if all those episodes on NBC.com are “promotional” and all those downloads are just meant to attract viewers to the show – well, shit. Somebody needs to tell Steve Jobs, for starters, because Apple sold three million videos in the first seven weeks on the iTunes Music Store and that money didn’t just fall out of the sky.
But more importantly, if digital media is not a salable commodity requiring compensation, then every single word you’ve ever heard from the studios about piracy or fair use is a dirty, filthy lie.
If it’s worth something, the studios are ripping off the writers. If it’s not, they’re ripping off you and me. Either way, at this point, the villain of the piece should be crystal clear.
What the studios want is basically what baseball owners wanted in 1994, or what hockey owners want – well, all the time: a legally-mandated deal to freeze the current model in amber, ensuring themselves a revenue stream in perpetuity irrespective of their own misjudgments, foibles and outright stupidity. Anything that doesn’t end with them wallowing naked in a pile of gold coins like Scrooge McDuck is wrong, immoral, illegal, and A Threat To Our American Way Of Life. This is why people who use their TiVo to skip through commercials are “thieves.” This is why Jeff Zucker thinks Apple “destroyed the music business.”
And if you want an insider view that hits it much better than I can here, read John Rogers’s take at Kung Fu Monkey: Why Strike II. And try to forgive him for being involved in that Transformers shitstorm. Meanwhile, raise a glass for the geeks on the picket line – at least they’re rising up and demanding not to be screwed. What are you prepared to do?