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WGA Strike: A Disambiguation

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The holidays are over and many of us have to resolve ourselves to getting back to work and responsibilities. Everyone except the writers, anyone who works in the production of tv and film and of course, the AMPTP. Except they are at work. It was just before Christmas that Nikki Finke reported that the moguls (which is who the AMPTP are. The name is misleading – there are few, if any, actual producers involved) decided that their strategy would be to punish the writers for standing up to them – even if it meant scrapping the rest of the tv season and next fall’s pilot season, not to mention the up fronts, where they sell advertising.

Though our coverage at LAist has been pro-writer, not all of us believe that the writers are right. Certainly not all of the commenters do. So I thought I would address a couple of these issues and look at some of the AMPTP’s behavior. I don’t really think I’m going to change anyone’s mind, but I know that the issues are cloudy, and I know that not everyone follows this stuff as closely as I do.

First, there was a commenter who mentioned that he should get residuals every time one of his students does something. In no way do I mean to denigrate teachers here. They do an incredibly important job, and deserve to get paid WAY more than they do now. But writing something is to literally create it out of thin air. Without the writer there would be nothing else. All of the people who help along the way have nothing to help with. It is, in fact more like being a parent than a teacher. I think that it's worth noting here as well that writers have made sacrifices for these residuals - they get paid less up front. In Canada, writers get a much bigger pay out up front, but they don't get residuals. Many below the line workers also get residual-like payments, but those go to their guilds, generally to pay for retirement benefits.

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Which brings me to another point. Writers are under enormous pressure, and they bear a great deal of guilt because of the number of people besides themselves who are out of work. As Jay Leno put it when he came back on the air, the needs of 19 were determining the livelihood of 160. And it's true, no one is denying it, the writers walked out. But no one seems to be blaming the AMPTP for this. I think they bear some, if not all of the responsibility for this mess - they're the ones who are refusing to negotiate. And unlike Shonda Rhimes, they aren't apologizing. Unlike Jay Leno and Conan O'Brian, they aren't covering anyone's salary. They couldn't even be bothered to show up to Los Angeles City Council's Housing, Community, and Economic Development Committee hearing on the economic impact of the strike.

All along, the AMPTP has been false in their dealings with the WGA, doing their best to confuse the membership and stall negotiations. As early as July, the AMPTP refused to sit down with writers. They kept this attitude until the last possible second. During some last minute backchannelling, the AMPTP said they would come back to the table if the writers took DVDs off. In good faith, the writers did. But the moguls still went back on their word, and never came to the table. On December 7, the AMPTP up and left the building where the talks were being held. It was 6:05 pm, and the writers were preparing a counter proposal, having just received something from the AMPTP that, among other things, stated that they would pay writers a flat $250 for the first year of downloads. Which seems, quite frankly, insulting. On December 7th, the WGA said they were ready to sit down whenever the AMPTP was. But they haven't since.

Now the late night talk shows are coming back, and soon the AMPTP will begin their negotiations with the DGA. The thing is, no one seems to care. The moguls don't care. The government doesn't care. The viewers don't care. Letterman and Leno both posted ratings up from when they went off the air in November.

You have to wonder if this is because of the way writers are considered in the industry - that if you've ever had an idea or written a letter to your grandma, you can write. Maybe it's symptomatic of what's going on in our culture right now, where big corporations feel that they can sell the people who make their products out, either by cutting wages and benefits or by outsourcing their jobs altogether. Maybe the AMPTP, with their stockpiled shows and movies, their emphasis on reality tv, have been successful at their shell game with the viewers. It's hard to know.

We want to be partners with the studios, to spread the joy of telling stories, of making things that thrill and excite together. But each side is drawing lines now, each has its story about how the other will be outdated (the studios by changing the business plan, and the taking over of reality tv, the writers by threatening to work out deals with big investors that cut the studios out all together). Both could be right. But why should we wait this out, some crazy game of chicken where no one really wins? Let's sit down and talk this out, because until then, everyone loses.

Image by Here in Van Nuys via Flickr