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TODAY

Saturday, June 15

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On November 1, 2007, the Writers Guild of America went on strike. In an ad placed in Variety, showrunners from more than 90 television shows explained that "Pencils Down Means Pencils Down."

"You guys will still break stories, right?"

"Your people can still write scripts. I mean, who would know?"

We would.

We would know that doing so undermines the very cause for which we're fighting. We would know that it sends the wrong message to those who honor our picket lines.

We would know that it only serves to prolong a strike.

So, just to be absolutely clear: In the event of a strike, we, the following showrunners, will do no writing and no story breaking — nor will any be asked of our writing staffs — until we get a deal.

In March of 1988, more than 9,000 film and television writers went on strike because of reduced residuals for shows' reruns both in the United States and abroad. That strike lasted five months, and the estimated loss for the industry totaled $500 million (roughly $855 million today). However, this time, the WGA chose to make their stand at the beginning of November sweeps. And this clash is about not only residuals (from DVDs) but also "new media," which includes Internet downloads, streaming video and "on-demand" distributions both online and on cable and satellite TV. Writers want a bigger piece of the pie for which they provided the ingredients.

Some people have little sympathy for Hollywood types who pull in, on average, $90,000+ annually for writing TV and movie scripts (except, apparently, female film scribes, who averaged only $50,000 per year in comparison, which, whoa, really? That's awful!). But the following data shows how little the actual creators of the entertainment we mainline receive for their efforts. The breakdown of who gets what from a $19 DVD:
Studios: $9.00
Retailer: $5.00
Production, shipping, other: $4.55
Other unions: $0.40
Writers: $0.05

Five cents. That's 0.26 percent of the total! I know that studios fund the projects and rightfully deserve the lion's share of the profits. But there wouldn't even be movies or TV series if writers hadn't created the scripts — why shouldn't they be fairly compensated?

New media is a bit trickier. Many in the industry believe that it will replace DVDs and the home video market just as DVDs replaced VHS tapes. And there is currently no "new media" clause in any WGA contract, which means that studios and networks have no legal obligation to pay writers for such material. But more online content pops up daily, much of it original and much of it exclusive to the Internet. Shouldn't writers be paid for penning new webisodes or when viewers watch TV shows on computers rather than on television? I've seen several different shows online through official websites, and not one has been free of a sponsor. And what about downloading episodes from iTunes or Amazon? Of course, compared with the current DVD deal, it would take almost 400 99-cent downloads for the writer to earn one penny.

Governator Arnold Schwarzenegger claimed to be working behind the scenes to end the dispute "because it has a tremendous economic impact on our state."Presidential candidates Hilary Clinton, John Edwards and Barack Obama all issued statements in support of the strike, and Jesse Jackson marched and spoke at a WGA rally on Friday. Several actors — ranging from Patrick Dempsey to Sally Field to Tina Fey to America Ferrera — have showed their support by picketing.

The harshest criticism, however, has been for daytime talk show host Ellen DeGeneres. She returned to work and filmed her show only one day after the strike. She told her audience, "I want to say I love my writers. I love them. In honor of them today, I'm not going to do a monologue. I support them and hope that they get everything they're asking for. And I hope it works out soon." The WGA issued a statement expressing their disappointment and weren't afraid to play rough.

"We find it sad that Ellen spent an entire week crying and fighting for a dog that she gave away, yet she couldn't even stand by writers for more than one day — writers who have helped make her extremely successful.

"Every show and film set has a production staff and crew that is beloved by their writers. Ellen's staff is no more important than the rest of the industry. When shows refuse to stand with us they create huge revenue streams for the companies, and that prolongs the strike for the thousands of staff and crew members who are noble enough to honor our picket lines. We find this situation hurtful to those people and extremely unfortunate."

What does this mean for the average television viewer? It depends on how long the strike lasts. You've probably already noticed that almost all of the late night shows are in repeats. Most soap operas have scripts through the beginning of the year. Games shows and reality shows are "unscripted" and are not members of the WGA — although several "writers" for America's Next Top Model picketed in 2006 in a failed attempt to be classified as such and receive the same pay and benefits and Guild members. As for prime time... if the two sides don't reach an agreement, there might not be much new network TV past February. The Los Angeles Times has compiled a handy TV Grid so you can find out the status of your favorite shows. TV Guide's Michael Ausiello breaks it down further to show how many episodes of several popular series are left.

As of Saturday night, the following shows had halted production completely: Aliens in America, Back to You, Big Bang Theory, Desperate Housewives, How I Met Your Mother, My Name is Earl, New Adventures of Old Christine, The Office, Rules of Engagement, 'Til Death and Two and a Half Men. More are sure to follow this week as the strike continues. Fox pulled 24 completely, and networks are scrambling to fill the scheduling holes. That most likely means more reality shows and subpar programming (not that 2007's crop of new shows was anything to celebrate).

Even so, as much as I love my entertainment — both mindlessthoughtful — I believe that the writers should be properly compensated for the worlds they've built in their minds and shared with us.

For the latest information on the strike, I suggest the following sources:
Writers Guild On Strike Contract 2007 (official WGA website)
The Los Angeles Times' Strike Zone
TV Guide's Strike Watch
Defamer's Hollywood Strikewatch (a bit more bitchy, but still)
TVtattle

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About the Author(s)

As a child, Dee Stiffler was only allowed to watch one hour of television a day. She usually chose Sesame Street. Today, she overcompensates by knowing far too much about the WB's lineup as well as pop culture in general. Email her at pop@gapersblock.com.

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