The Writers’ Strike, Web Streaming and Piracy

Littleton’s work TV on Strike tells the story of the 2008 Writers Guild of America strike, an event which left Hollywood paralyzed for months. Littleton weaves together the various participants and happenings into a compelling and engaging narrative of the battle between Hollywood’s content creators and distributors. While an interesting story from any perspective, the WGA’s strike has particular relevance to my interests due to the issue at the strike’s core: digital distribution of televised entertainment.Pirate_icon

The Writers Guild of America employed the strike as a powerful tool in the negotiations over the royalties writers would receive for the digital download or re-airing of their works.  As Littleton tells us, the message circulated among the WGA prior to the strike was “ ‘don’t let them screw us on the Internet like they did on home video’ “ (Littleton 6). The WGA identified as a paradigm shift the burgeoning field of digital distribution in the entertainment industry,  and took action to account for what they believed to be a massively important new element within film and television distribution.

Time appears to have proven the WGA correct. No more than five years later, the use of digital means to watch television has become a fixture of our society. Many channels, including major broadcast networks, upload episodes to be watched online no more than a day after the episode airs live, if that long. I personally make use of such conveniences to watch episodes of Community and The Vampire Diaries without needing to catch them on television. While I consider myself an avid fan of television, I can’t remember the last time I actually watched a new episode of a show live on a physical TV.

These online streaming services represent an attempted solution to another issue discussed by Littleton: online piracy. Littleton relates an encounter between Disney executives in 2005 where Vince Roberts demonstrated the ability to illegally download high-quality, ad-free episodes of Desperate Housewives for free (Littleton 11). Disney executives heeded Roberts’s wake-up call and launched a web-streaming initiative beginning in 2005 for ABC, Disney Channel, and ESPN.

Piracy has only become easier and more mainstream since 2005, as the eternally defiant Pirate Bay constantly makes the news. Pirates experience content for free whenever they feel like, completely liberated from the advertising machine that constitutes the television industry’s main revenue stream.  As discussed in my Digital Culture class with Professor Stenger last semester, many individuals no longer even see piracy as morally wrong in any way, and so the practice will only continue to grow. The Hollywood studios needed a reply to piracy to preserve their advertising dollars, and so seized upon the idea of legal streams of their shows seeded with ads.

Fast, convenient, and legal outlets for consuming media online represent a far better answer to piracy than quixotic attempts to turn back the tide and prevent illegal downloads altogether. While I could watch Community and The Vampire Diaries via illegal downloads or streams completely ad-free, NBC and the CW’s official sites allow me a convenient, legal and safe way to consume media. Rather than dealing with the hassle of a torrent client or finding a good stream, I can simply go straight to the show’s official website.

Similarly, Netflix’s popularity evidences the importance and impact of convenience. Many Netflix users have the technological savvy to obtain nearly any of the site’s titles for free via piracy, but choose instead to pay a monthly fee as Netflix offers its users a highly convenient and easy way to access a multitude of entertainment.

The WGA was write to place great emphasis on the digital sphere, as sanctioned digital distribution of television represents the industry’s likeliest future. While many in the entertainment industry oft bemoan the horrors and negative impact of piracy, Hollywood studios have all the tools necessary to adapt to the world of new media.  Officially sanctioned web streaming services have the potential to carve out a broad kingdom in cyberspace and, in doing so, reach more viewers than ever before. Official streams will of course not vanquish piracy, but piracy need not be an industry killer so long as Hollywood continues to adjust itself to the realities of the modern world of new media.

Citations

Littleton, Cynthia. TV on Strike: Why Hollywood Went to War Over the Internet. Syracuse University Press, 2013.

Image courtesy of the Wikimedia Commons. Uploaded by WarX, edited by Manuel Strehl and modified by jlandrin.

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Comments

  1. Given your interest in streaming television content, you might enjoy a quick breeze through these early glimpses into the genesis of Hulu as covered by Wired magazine:

    + “NBC, News Corp. Plan YouTube Clone”

    + “TV Cocks Its Young Guns to Deliver New Media Programming”

    + “Free, Legal and Online: Why Hulu Is the New Way to Watch TV”

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