TV on Strike vs. Empires of Entertainment

While reading Cynthia Littleton’s “Tv On Strike: Why Hollywood Went to War Over the Internet,” I found it particularly interesting to draw connections between the transition from regulation to integrated media conglomerates and the cultural movement from live television to internet-hosted viewing. A few things in particular stood out to me:

  1. Littleton’s assertion on page 2 that “The vast expansion of the availability of programming since 2005 has produced an upheaval unlike anything the US television industry has experiences in its previous six decades.” Though the industry hadn’t previously seen a major revolt from the writers (in this case the Writer’s Guild of America), the two-decade period between 1965 and 1985 saw countless lawsuits between production, distribution and broadcasting corporations regarding deregulation. Littleton goes on to say that, “Much of the strike was fought in the gray area of the gulf between the guild’s demands and the studio’s insistence that there was no profit windfall from the internet, yet” (3). Again, I immediately thought of the conflicts surrounding vertical and horizontal integration among cable conglomerates, production studios, theaters, and satellite networks. Though the deterioration of regulatory efforts was imminent, there was still ambiguity regarding whether or not technological integration would increase or decrease competition. I believe that the two situations’ similarities reflect their inevitable similarity in outcome.
  2. I also found the information conflict about TiVo and On Demand particularly relevant while watching Superbowl 48 this past weekend. Though I (and my friends) primarily watch TV on Hulu, Netflix, and through other immediate online channels, sports games are an opportunity for companies to capitalize on live, prime-time viewing and ad sales. Since sports culture is all about the competition, technicalities, and camaraderie, the value of live viewing is higher and less easy to replace. This year, the NIF projected an average of 181 million viewers (according to marketingcharts.org) and ads cost an average of $4 million for 30 seconds at any point during the game (according to adage.com).
  3. Though mildly horrifying, WGA East’s President Michael Winship’s comparison of negotiations (26) with George W. Bush’s decision to invade Iraq illustrates the severity of both sides’ determination. There was an “intractability” about it; the WGA felt they were being shafted with irrelevant offers, while the AMPTP expressed a belief that the WGA actually wanted to strike and would do so unless offered unreasonable concessions. I appreciate Littleton’s follow-up explaining that the strike was, in fact, a “David-versus-Goliath struggle against the tide of vertical integration” that earned the WGA long overdue recognition and compensation (27).
  4. After watching wgaamerica’s video, The Office is Closed, I had a much higher understanding of the degree to which the WGA was undervalued. Mike Schur–writer, actor, and co-executive producer for The Office–offered some numbers, “We’re supposed to get paid 11 cents for every 200 trillion downloads.” It was an absolutely dire situation where the compensation was unacceptable. Furthermore, their concerns about the internet were 100 percept warranted; I watched the video on YouTube, where they talked about webisodes, and I wasn’t required to watch any ads.

While the reading provided plenty of content for discussion, there were also certain sections I didn’t understand:

  1. On page 29, Littleton explains that “the directors waiting in the wings behind the WGA was a tactical advantage skillfully used by the AMPTP to hold the writers at bay during a crucial phase of the strike.” Though I understand that their agreements acted as a template for the writers, I wasn’t clear as to why “The DGA ended up calling most of the shots in the compensation formulations included in the final contracts agreed to by the three guilds.” Was it just because the WGA was less willing to communicate and/or compromise?
  2. Littleton recalls, “[Verrone] had a persuasive argument that the people who edited hours and hours of vérité footage or shaped other content were in fact the ‘writers” (45). Why did “writers” need convincing in order to get behind WGA priorities and goals? Why were those who weren’t literally writing comfortable seeing themselves as equal creators?
  3. On page 57, Littleton discusses the 2005 reality TV talks. I don’t understand what she meant in that the WGA “had no success in organizing a single show.” Though they came up short in the talks surrounding America’s Next Top Model, they achieved their goal of mobilizing the group and maintaining momentum against the AMPTP. What kind of show was the WGA attempting to organize?

I thought two events summed up the conflict between writers and corporations effectively: Verrone’s 2006 interview on AMC’s Sunday Morning Shootout where he explained, “Because we don’t have crystal balls, we need to have…the other kind of balls” (62) and The Chair Incident that, “boiled down to a lack of communication between the principal players…a central problem throughout the negotiations and strike period that hampered both sides’ ability to make progress on issues more important than chairs” (65).

side note: Littleton uses the word “balked” more times in this book than any other writer I know.

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Comments

  1. I hope you revisit — either in a later post or in seminar — the relationship/dynamic between industrial integration and technological integration. This is an interesting and complex issue, and something that is only going to become more central to the material and our discussions going forward.

  2. Re: you question about the DGA: Shortly before the passage you cite, Littleton notes that whereas the WGA and SAG are historically strong allies when it comes to contract negotiations and labor relations:

    The DGA, on the other hand, has a history of conflicting with the WGA’s agenda on industry issues. The tension between the WGA and DGA mir- rors the age-old professional tensions between writers and directors. (28)

    From the AMPTP’s perspective, the DGA is a more deliberative and reasonable body than the WGA and SAG. Fairly or not, the AMPTP seems to view the DGA/WGA as roughly analogous to the Senate and House of Representatives.

    Re: you question about WGA’s failure to “organiz[e] a single show”: Littleton is specifically referring to the WGA’s efforts to bring members of unscripted programming into the WGA. Although editors on such shows belonged to a union, they did not belong to the WGA, so in a sense, when Littleton says “organize” she essentially means “unionize”. This would seem straightforward enough given that the workers on unscripted television were already union members, but there are potentially significant risks in leaving one union for another — especially one that everyone from industry observers to labor activists to the WGA and AMPTP leadership believed to be headed for a protracted strike.

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