Walking the Line 

No end in sight for the striking Writers Guild.

It's a fight for the future, and it looks like the future will be where it is finally settled. Whether one's source is insiders, bloggers, analysts, or tea leaves, most agree that the current strike against producers by members of the Writers Guild of America is likely to be a long one.

Reporting recently on the lack of progress in ending the strike, John Bowman, chairman of the WGA Negotiating Committee, said strikers will stage "a fairly large march in a couple of weeks." If the march is a couple of weeks away, a settlement may be months away.

Most noticeable now in late night, where reruns have replaced new editions of the variety-talk shows, the strike's effects will soon be felt by viewers in prime time, too, as backlogs of popular series become exhausted.

Whose side to take? That seems so obvious. Corporate giants are getting disproportionately wealthy off the underpaid labors of Writers Guild members. The fat cats aren't just getting fatter; they're morbidly obese.

As one of the picket-line chants in Hollywood goes: "Hey hey, ho ho, management can't write the show." It all starts with writers, and they have a right to share in added profits when new markets open up. There's a feeling by many that in past negotiations over the sale of reruns to cable TV and home video, writers settled for too little added compensation. This history, they say, must not repeat itself as the Internet explodes and shows are distributed in a whole new way — downloading and streaming their way into millions of American homes or cell phones.

Picketing in solidarity with the writers, actress Valerie ("Rhoda") Harper, a member of the Screen Actors Guild, said in an interview, "We missed the boat with cable, we missed the boat with home video. We will not miss this boat." Actually, the current battle includes an aspect of home video: burgeoning sales of old movies and TV shows on DVD. Videocassettes were basically a rental business, but DVDs are so cheap to make and sell, many consumers are building home libraries of favorite movie and TV productions.

Writers wrote all of them. But under the current provisions, their share of the ancillary income is absolute zero.

The Internet is the battleground as well as the pot of gold. A pro-Guild group called unitedhollywood.com is producing powerful propaganda pieces that make the writers' case on YouTube. One of the best of these minimovies — about two minutes long — attacks the corporate argument that the Internet is still in a state of confusion and that it's thus not possible to reach agreement over compensation.

"These are the heartbreaking voices of uncertainty," sneers a printed caption on the screen — followed by statements from captains of the industry about how rich they're already getting from the digital revolution. Bob Iger, president and CEO of the Walt Disney Co. (which owns ABC), asked to estimate Disney's annual revenue from the new media, replies, "It's about a billion-five in digital." That's one billion, five hundred million dollars. Boasts Sumner Redstone, gung-ho chairman of Viacom (which owns Paramount): "Viacom will double its revenues this year from digital." Rupert Murdoch, notorious chairman of News Corp. (including Fox TV networks), predicts "a golden era ... full of golden opportunities" for empires such as his.

And Les Moonves, CEO of CBS Inc., talking about the proliferation of "screens" in other locations besides the home, says that CBS "will get paid" for such programming as the CSI shows regardless of which or how many screens they are shown on. "We're going to get paid no matter where you get it from," he crows.

What these blowhards said to impress their stockholders now comes back to haunt them. They can't have it both ways — to claim that uncertainty about the Internet is inhibiting them and at the same time brag about huge new infusions of money.

Four months of negotiation produced a standoff. So far, the public has shown relatively little interest, but when the same episodes of Lost or Ugly Betty roll around for the fourth or fifth time in the chill of February, viewers are bound to start asking tough questions. Average Americans have much more in common with struggling writers than they do with avaricious executives who make millions even when fired for incompetence.

People will know where to point the finger of blame and who's getting short-changed.

Tom Shales is a writer for the Washington Post Writers Group.

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