What Does a WGA Strike Mean For New Media?

The clock is ticking on a potential strike by the Writers Guild of America. With the Oct. 31 deadline date looming on the not-so-distant horizon, Hollywood producers are scrambling to finalize projects and television is readying itself for the second coming of reality TV. New media, meanwhile, stands in waiting. What would a writers strike mean for online video?

It’s an especially interesting question as some online video sites are subsidiaries of big studios, like NBCU’s (GE) DotComedy, Fox’s (NWS) MySpaceTV, and AOL Time Warner’s (TWX) Super Deluxe. In the event of a strike, would writers for these sites risk their future guild membership by continuing to write? On the flip side, will independent video networks like Revision3 and Next New Networks move in to scoop up unemployed talent?

“I think the model for Internet video is very different,” Revision3 CEO Jim Louderback told NewTeeVee in an interview. “This is just the first skirmish in a really long long war, a war that will eventually end with those making television in the traditional model losing. It’s going to be a wrenching change.” While Louderback said that Rev3 doesn’t have writers in the traditional sense, he said he could see television writers moving online. Next New Networks declined to comment on the question of hiring guild writers.

The WGA has been very clear with its belief that writers are systematically being underpaid in the new media space, outlining their digital grievances in its guidelines for digital distribution. DVD residuals are one huge sticking point, but the WGA also contends that writers are getting “sub-standard residual” pay for iTunes downloads. It further faults studios for getting non-guild writers to write character blogs, MySpace profiles, as well as video game, mobisode, and webisode spinoffs.

While this all sounds relatively reasonable, the WGA is not as forward-thinking in its proposed solutions as it is in its complaints. In the WGA’S contract proposal, by way of explanation for the inclusion of new media, it states flatly that “our philosophy is that the Internet IS television. Our approach is to minimize the differences between how writing for television is covered under the MBA and how writing for the Internet is covered.” Thinking like this is hampering negotiations and, worse yet, could prevent a lot of talent moving from Hollywood to the Internet.

The WGA has also been very clear about what will happen to writers working during the strike: “The Rules prohibit writing services performed for a struck company in connection with new programming intended for initial viewing on non-traditional media (such as the Internet and cellular telephones), and the option or sale of literary material for that purpose.” Some of the studio subsidiaries, however, such as NBCU’s DotComedy, expect business as usual.

Revision3 CEO Louderback is optimistic. “It’s gonna drive more people to watch more programming on the Net,” he said. “Both sides are shooting themselves in the foot. Any strike will make what’s on television less interesting and will send people looking for edgier, newer content online.”

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