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Short-Term Deal Could Mean Long-Term Work

Jul 15, 2007  •  Post A Comment

In the Hollywood labor talks that start this week, writers and producers have begun to posture. So it’s not too soon to offer some advice on how to avoid a mutually destructive confrontation.

It seems inevitable that the issue that will be most difficult to resolve is how writers are compensated when their creations are seen in digital incarnations such as downloads or Web streams.

As usual, the Writers Guild of America and the Alliance of Motion Picture & Television Producers are staking out untenable bargaining positions from which they will move to the middle.

The producers’ suggestion last week that each side study the development of digital delivery of TV for three years before deciding on a compensation scheme for writers is laughable; writers won’t twist, twist slowly in the wind for three years.

The producers’ proposal that writers be compensated based on “profits” is even more guffaw-inducing. Even numbers-averse writers understand Hollywood accounting is too slippery to permit compensation to be based on some tweaked, twiddled and whittled bottom line.

The writers, in turn, complained that the money they’d seek in a three-year contract is barely a rounding error to media conglomerates. That comes off as just a quaint appeal to pathos, which has very little role in the negotiations.

But in these initial feints we find the beginnings of a solution that will prevent a stalemate that leads to the kind of strike that in 1988 ended up costing the industry hundreds of millions of dollars.

The producers rightly point out that the TV business’ forays into digital delivery are so nascent that it’s dangerous to strike a long-term deal apportioning revenue. The business models aren’t mature. It’s difficult to predict whether advertising-supported models will flourish. Entirely new ways of watching TV may emerge.

So why not fence off the digital-compensation talks and strike a short-term agreement on that subject? A year from now, TV companies and writers both will have a better understanding of the revenues and costs associated with distributing programs across digital media. Those terms then could be re-examined and tweaked to fairly compensate writers based on how the business has developed.

A series of negotiations would extend the pain of the bargaining process, but TV companies—and writers—risk greater pain in a strike.

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