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The WGA, the strike, and you

Analise Lipari | Friday, November 9, 2007

Picture a world with no more television. Nothing but reruns during primetime hours. No new episodes of “30 Rock,” “Ugly Betty” or “CSI” posted online. Letterman, Colbert and Conan sitting at home on a Tuesday night. Unthinkable, right? Wrong. On Monday at 12:01 am, the Writers Guild of America (or WGA) ceased contract negotiations and officially went on strike. Picket lines are now a common occurrence on the streets of Los Angeles and New York, with stars like Sally Field, Tina Fey and Eva Longoria joining the demonstrations. The WGA is fighting for a list of demands that includes compensation for Web content, further residuals from DVD and videocassette releases and a stronger say in productions on the CW and MyNetwork TV. Shows like “Two and a Half Men,” “Desperate Housewives” and “The New Adventures of Old Christine” have already shut down production indefinitely, with more shows likely to follow if the strike continues. If this all seems like a confusing hullabaloo, let’s take a step back. There’s a lot more to the disagreements than some kind of battle between the WGA and the Alliance of Motion Picture and Television Producers (AMPTP), and much of the conflict comes down to how exactly – and how much – writers are actually paid. With the rapid development of online media and its increasing relationship with television – when was the last time you watched “Lost” when it originally aired on ABC? – writers have been left somewhat in the cold. One of the main demands of the WGA addresses such “non-traditional media,” and how they might be compensated for what is, in reality, their work.In the summer of 2006, for example, NBC.com exclusively featured a series of webisodes based on “The Office.” These mini-episodes followed the adventures of the Dunder-Mifflin accountants – Kevin, Phyllis et al – and were written by Paul Lieberstein and Michael Schur, two of the show’s regular seasonal writers. But neither writer received compensation for his work on the webisodes, despite winning NBC a Daytime Emmy for them. It’s these kinds of instances that keep the WGA pushing hard for residuals for online content to be included in their new contracts. Notably, “The Office” has also shut down production until further notice.While the writers and the WGA are at the forefront of the issue, the strike is having an extended ripple effect on the television and entertainment business as a whole. If a show shuts down production because its writers stage a walkout, the actors, directors, stage crew and staff are also out of work. While keeping this in mind may not be the writers’ main goal, the entertainment community seems conscious of the impact the strike could have on its livelihood and on the entire industry. Still, actors – including the entire cast of “Grey’s Anatomy,” as well as creator Shonda Rhimes – and a number of show-runners (the writer-producer-creator figures who run any given TV show) are joining the picket lines in support of the WGA.”There is not one person out here who doesn’t lose in a strike, and there is not one show-runner who is actually going to gain anything,” Steve Levitan, producer of Fox’s “Back to You,” said in a recent article on EW.com. “We are all going to lose, no matter what happens. The minute we lose a week’s production, we lost and will never regain that. Past generations have made a sacrifice for us, and now it’s our turn to make a sacrifice for future generations.”Sacrifices are all well and good, but what does the strike mean for the common viewer like you and me? In the short term, late-night talk shows have already switched to indefinite reruns, and it’s likely that the major networks will follow suit with most of their programming. As for the rest of the season, only those episodes that have been completed pre-strike can air. While some shows, like “The Simpsons” and CW’s “Everybody Hates Chris,” have almost full seasons in the can, others – like “The Office,” whose last completed episode will air next week – are stuck with what they’ve got. In the near future, viewers will also see an increase in reality television, as writers on shows like “American Idol” or “The Hills” are non-union and thus unaffected by the strike. The last WGA strike in 1988 cost the industry approximately $500 million and lasted 22 weeks. If the current strike continues through November sweeps and into next year, as some insiders have predicted, we may see an even bigger impact on the TV we watch every day. Writers shouldn’t have to go uncompensated for their work as the online format keeps growing, especially when network Web sites stream their episodes with commercial content. With high visibility and media coverage – even 2008 Democratic presidential candidates John Edwards, Barack Obama and Hillary Clinton have expressed support for the strike – the WGA is poised to have its voice heard. It’s up to both parties to keep their integrity and find a common ground.