Thankfully there wasn’t a cruel wind blowing off the Hudson River near Chelsea Piers, the Manhattan soundstage where striking Writers Guild of America East members had formed a picket on Wednesday. I arrived to survey the scene just as organizers were putting away their signs, but dozens of members still milled around behind the inflatable rat that’s marked union actions around New York City for the last few years, and drivers speeding up the West Side Highway regularly honked in support.
Unlike the writing team and cast from The Office (above), who can count on the California sun to keep it fun, the goodwill of passing motorists, a sense of righteous indignation and hot coffee will have to be enough to keep guild members warm here in New York if the strike drags on. When I asked to speak to someone about the strike, I was directed to Tim Carvell. One of the craftsmen behind Jon Stewart’s witty quips on The Daily Show, a popular source of online clips, Carvell and his colleagues on the writing team have won multiple Emmys for their work.
NewTeeVee: Viacom and Comedy Central put up their own online site specifically so that they can control the distribution and advertise against their shows. Is one of the reasons that you’re out here to get a piece of that revenue?
Tim Carvell: That site, especially, I don’t know if you’ve been on it, but you can download pretty much whole clips of our shows that are underwritten by sponsors. You know, when our show goes out over Comedy Central for a rerun with advertising in it, we get a little bit of money for that, we get a little residual. When it’s on your computer screen with the advertising in it, for some reason that’s considered promotional. So we get no money out of it, and that just seems like they’re lying to us, for want of a better term.
NewTeeVee: How do you feel the guild’s decision to strike during these contract negotiations as opposed to three years from now when Internet revenue is a larger share?
Carvell: I’m on the guild council, so I’m speaking obviously with a bias, but I felt like this was the time. Three years from now I’m sure they would still say it would be unproven, and three years after that, and three years after that. We understand that it’s a fairly new technology, but that doesn’t seem to prevent them from promising investors specific dollar amounts that they’re going to make off of it. It didn’t prevent them from valuing their Internet content at $1 billion when they sued YouTube.
All we’re asking for is a percentage, as I’m sure you’ve heard many times here. If it’s not worth anything, if it turns out to be worth very little, we’ll get a percentage of very little. If it’s worth a lot, we’d like a percentage of a lot. We kind of think that the percentage thing gives them the flexibility to have the business be whatever size it’s going to be.
NewTeeVee: The producers negotiated for a discount on home video residuals because it was an unproven technology. Do you feel there’s a certain hubris that they’d go to that well again after so many years?
Carvell: It does take exceptionally large balls to do that — like the size that I’d imagine they’d have to be pushed around in a wheelbarrow — to try and make that exact same argument given that we’ve spent the last 20-odd years trying to sort of undo the damage that deal did.
NewTeeVee: If the action is a prolonged one, have you or any of the other guild members you’ve spoken with talked about setting up your own shop for projects, the way that some of the other talent in Hollywood have gone after venture capital to start up their own concerns?
Carvell: We haven’t really talked about it, in part because we’re really hoping and expecting that we’ll have a deal sooner rather than later. We’re not really good planners, and we haven’t really planned that far in advance. We’re just hoping that pretty soon we’re going to have a deal and be able to go back to the office.