The One Where They Go On Strike: Friends, Netflix and the Value of Reruns

The lack of respect shown to television writers by the entertainment industry remains, to me, unfathomable. With networks struggling to attract new, dedicated audiences, one would think that the value of a good writer would be of the utmost importance. While directors and producers bring the words on the page to life and imbue typed computer symbols with emotion and meaning, the writers are responsible for creating something out of nothing, for creating and guiding the storylines that will captivate millions of viewers around the world. For that, their work is considered literally priceless. By studio executives, at least.

Cynthia Littleton’s book TV On Strike: Why Hollywood Went to War Over the Internet investigates the events leading up to the momentous 2007 writer’s strike that sent shockwaves through the television industry for almost 2 months. As Internet services began to lure customers away from traditional Hollywood industries, executives at some of the top media companies began to fear the worst: that “the first generation raised with the Internet as a household appliance” would sink production companies’ profits with their digital consumption habits, forcing those companies to rely on new, unpredictable sources of revenue like iTunes (Littleton 2). Determined to preserve as much of their remaining profits as possible, the studios were steadfast in their refusal to compensate writers for additional, made-for-Internet work and residual payments.

Ben Stiller

Actor and writer Ben Stiller supporting the WGA, via Flickr.

Though reruns can function as a mere supplement to a network’s income, they are significantly more important to the writers, many of whom are struggling to build their careers. As Littleton notes, “the reuse payments are crucial for helping creative talent survive lean times in an industry where workers are almost exclusively hired on a project-by-project basis, and even experienced writers, directors, and actors can go months, if not years, between jobs” (69). Residual money is necessary, not just to help amateur writers break into the business, but to create a space where writers can flex their artistic muscles, without financial burdens looming above them. When executives chose to curb the number of reruns airing on their network, then, in an attempt to cut costs, they were directly threatening the livelihood of their workers, planting the seed of resentment that would blossom in 2007 with the WGA strikes.

Bringing,this idea into the modern day, I’m forced to wonder how studios have managed to counter the dip in reruns ratings brought on by web-streaming services like Netflix and Hulu. In 2013, Netflix reportedly spent over 2 billion dollars licensing content from outside companies. Some networks, like Walking Dead creator AMC, benefit from this wider distribution opportunity. When the network granted Netflix the right to carry the first four seasons of Breaking Bad, the series’ ratings jumped 50 percent in the following season. (Other programs, like Cartoon Network’s Adult Swim have not fared as well, losing around 3 percent of their audience after handing over the show to Netflix.)

The recent release of Friends on Netflix is particularly interesting. Not only is Friends one of the most popular network sitcoms of all time, it’s also one of the most popular rerun picks among the networks. Both TBS and TV Land keep the urban sitcom on their rerun roster, despite having original programming of their own. Commenting on the value of sitcoms, Bill Carroll of Katz Media Group explained: “These shows are still valuable because they are a known commodity. Networks don’t need to establish them.” In unifying younger and older audiences, these classics can rope in ratings worthy of their million dollar price tags.

CouchWhile many networks are concerned that web-streaming services will disrupt the ratings of on-air shows, they overlook the potential damage such sites can inflict on rerun numbers. If audiences learn that they can access the entire Friends season online at any time, rather than having to wait for reruns to appear at a scheduled time on channels like TBS, they may adjust their viewing habits accordingly, tuning onto online services and causing the network’s rerun profits to drop.

Littleton briefly touches on this topic in the final chapter of her book, noting “as the number of digital distribution outlets for movie and TV content – from Hulu to Netflix to burgeoning mobile TV services – the volume of traditional network TV reruns is only going to decrease in the coming years. In that sense, the WGA’s approach was rational” (243). As the number of programming options increases, the attention that audiences once gave to reruns is redirected towards the digital realm. With this scenario in mind, I question how the future of residuals will play out in a world of unreliable audiences. As networks start sharing their content with sites like Netflix and Hulu, the contract for residuals becomes increasingly complex. How should revenues from streaming services be decided? How will networks compensate for the dip in reruns ratings? Will streaming revenue remain classified as part of the “home video” clause?

“The blank page is God’s way of letting us know how hard it is to be God.” As this sentiment by author G.K. Chesterson so accurately expresses, writing is one of the most difficult tasks a creative person faces. To not compensate such artists with the payment that they deserve is to undermine the value of the work they’re doing and stifle the creativity that keeps the entertainment industry alive.

Featured image via Flickr. Friends image via Flickr.

Sources:

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

Poggie, Jeanine. “Why Cable Networks Will Keep Paying through the Nose for Broadcast Reruns.” Adage.com. Advertising Age, 22 Nov. 2013. Web. 2 Feb. 2015.

Spangler, Todd. “Cartoon Network: Netflix Is Hurting Our TV Ratings.” Variety.com. Variety Media, Web. 2 Feb. 2015. <http://variety.com/2013/digital/news/netflix-is-draining-cartoon-networks-tv-ratings-1200609111/&gt;.

 

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