Of all the strong convictions expressed by the hundreds of Writers Guild members who took to the streets on Monday, none was more pervasive among the strikers than the certainty that the television business as we know it today will soon be a distant memory.
Many scribes are convinced that soon all television program distribution, or at least the reruns that generate the stuff of mortgage and car payments for WGA members, are going the way of the Web. The advent of buy-to-own downloads, web streaming of full-length segs and DVD box sets by season will combine to put the knife in the kind of mammoth syndication deals that for decades have yielded the biggest windfalls for studios and profit participants.
The CEOs of the struck studios and networks undoubtedly share those fears/concerns -- on that point at least they can all agree. Warner Bros. did well with old-fashioned syndie sales to local broadcast stations of CBS' "Two and a Half Men," but is it the last one? How long will cablers keep paying $1 million-plus for rerun rights to an hourlong series that can be readily accessed on an on-demand basis?
"The media is changing. The way our product is getting out is changing," said writer David Fury as he stood outside the 20th Century Fox lot on Pico Boulevard holding up one end of a large homemade paper banner reading "Writers 4 a Fair Contract." Fury, who also gamely leaned into the street with a sign urging drivers to "Honk 4 Writers" (and they did, through the gamut of Toyotas, Mercedes, BMWs, Lexuses, Prius, Hondas, etc.), said the fire this time stems from a desire to protect themselves in the future.
The hangover of the much-reviled formula writers agreed to in the mid-1980s on homevid compensation hovers like smog in Riverside on a windy day in L.A. over every move the scribes and studios try to make on new media. In the view of writers who took roles in Monday's picket street theater, the biggest problem is that the studios have refused to make any moves on the matter.
"The younger writers -- the kids who are now in college -- are not protected" for the new media world order, said Fury, whose credits include "24," "Lost" and "Buffy the Vampire Slayer."If we don't do it now, a lot of writers are going to wonder why we let them down."
"The whole business is moving toward the Internet," said writer Michael Colton as he walked a line outside a Paramount gate in a black T-shirt that read "comedy writer" on the front and "unfair is unfunny" on the back. "If we don't make a stand now, we'll be screwed."
Writers want a new set of compensation formulas devised for when their work, originals and repeats, are exhibited on platforms that didn't exist five years ago. The congloms have responded by saying that digital is "not a business yet," despite how fervently the CEOs have been talking up their "digital strategies" and prospects of raking in billions of digi-dollars to Wall Street during the past two years since downloads and web streaming have become commonplace for movies and TV shows.
Barbara Hall is well-known as one of the most eloquent voices among TV scribes. She's convinced the studios are speaking out of both sides of their mouths on digital donned a baseball cap and running shoes on Monday to join the march outside of 20th Century Fox.
"We're on the precipice of change. It's time to address this," she said. "We wouldn't be here if we didn't feel we'd hit a wall" in the negotiations.
No matter how fast the world of television exhibition and distribution may be changing, some things will never change. It all starts with a "content creator," usually an old-fashioned scribe, to have a vision to create something the "product" that flows through those pipes. Content creators have a way of getting attached to their offspring, and one of the saddest aspects of the strike for those on the picket side is having to walk away from their babies mid-sentence, as it were.
A strike settlement can't come soon enough for Bill Wrubel, an "Ugly Betty" scribe who's first episode of the show's second season is skedded to go before the cameras next week.
"Not to be on the set is tough, but there's no way around it," Wrubel said as he picketed outside Raleigh Studios in Hollywood where the ABC dramedy is shot. He and other "Ugly Betty"-ers were touched by the show of support from the show's actors, particularly America Ferrera, who kept walking out to the studio entrance on her shooting breaks on Monday morning, to the delight of the news media on hand.
"The actors on our show are so appreciative of what the writers do. This is just sad. We're really in this together," Wrubel said. "We have the whole season of 'Ugly Betty' mapped out really well in our heads, and to not be able to execute it is ... disappointing."
Wrubel shook his head, surveyed the scene of pickets, news media and assorted hangers on and added softly: "The whole point of being on strike is to make the contract happen."