More than 175 members of the WGAE in the “staff” (that is, news) category answered a Guild questionnaire about trends in broadcast news. We want to engage in a conversation with Guild members about the future, how it will affect members and what the union should be doing about it.
Although most members who answered the questionnaire believe their employers will remain in the business for quite some time, most also think audiences for broadcast news will shrink, and that more and more material will be distributed on the Internet, including material that won’t be broadcast via TV or radio at all. More than two-thirds of the respondents said their employers will assign more work to people who work solely on the Internet. About 40% said their employers had assigned them digital media work. More than 60% reported increased workloads in general, and the same number think their jobs are less secure now than they were five years ago. When asked if they would advise a young person to pursue a career in broadcast news, less than 40% answered “yes”.
To understand what members think about where the Guild should focus its efforts and resources, we asked them to rank six options. The number one choice, by a significant margin: Enhance members’ skills. This won the most number-one rankings from respondents and was at the top in other measures, as well (e.g., adding together number-one and number-two rankings, and adding together the top three). Two other options also ranked high: encouraging the companies to broaden the work performed by members, and protecting the percentage of Guild-represented employees in each shop. We won provisions which protect the percentage of Guild representation for the first time in the 2010 negotiations, covering local station operations at CBS and ABC.
The two top-rated action items — enhancing members’ skills and encouraging the companies to broaden members’ work — are in a sense two sides of one coin. They seem to reflect that, as the technology and economics of news are transformed, the duties to be performed are also changing. The ratings suggest that members believe the best way for them, and thus the Guild, to maintain their key positions in the industry is to adapt to these changes by learning new skills and taking on new tasks. And this is borne out by members’ advice for young people contemplating careers in news. Some examples: “A newsperson needs to be well informed and trained in all media: i.e.: internet, social media, as well as broadcast and computer skills — and for God’s sake — spelling, grammar and punctuation.” And “facility with internet friendly formats, multi-media skills, entrepreneurship, self-motivation and an understanding that the news business does not pay much but is worth it.” Of course, members also stressed the fundamentals: “I would tell them to work on their writing — the person who can write and write well usually does the best in this business.” And, “Be a story teller.”
Questionnaire respondents wrote about the effect of the Internet on the news business: “I wish the Guild would understand that there is no such thing as ‘broadcast news’ anymore. Shows may go on at a certain time every day, but when has it really broken real, up-to-the minute news that you didn’t already know?” And, “I think the importance of network television in the traditional sense will continue to decrease over the next few years. There will continue to be growth in the online sector of all news products.” And, perhaps more dramatically: “Broadcast news is dead–the networks just haven’t realized it yet. Everything is shifting to the internet and WGA members need to be skilled in content creation for the net.”
This, too, suggests that broadening the work done by Guild members – particularly online and other digital news work – will be important to members’ long-term prospects. It also suggests, as a corollary, that organizing new members working primarily on employers’ web sites could also be important to maintaining the Guild’s place in the news industry.
Hollywood is awash in blockbusters, huge-budget movies that bring in hundreds of millions of dollars from box offices around the globe. Film production in New York is at record levels, and studios will be rolling out dozens of big sequels, sci-fi adventures, comedies and star vehicles this year. But screenwriters are finding it more difficult than ever to make a living in this business. How could this be?
The major studios are owned by multinational conglomerates that seem stuck in an Old Economy way of thinking: minimize risk and maximize promotion; play it safe with product development and hope the market keeps absorbing what you’re selling. This approach didn’t work so well in the automobile industry, which learned the hard way that innovation and product quality are keys to long-term success. But the movie business keeps consolidating to the perceive security of conformism.
Don’t get me wrong. Audiences tend to be pretty smart, and many recent hits have been intelligent, well-constructed explorations of important cultural and political themes. Or at least they’ve been powerfully entertaining. But it is almost inevitable that the focus on mega-movies squeezes out films that are more intimate, independent, intriguing and innovative.
Many members of the Writers Guild of America, East, do very well in this context. Their genius for crafting stories that move and cohere, for developing characters with depth and appeal, is the foundation upon which big studio productions are built – and producers know it. Unfortunately, other Guild members find it increasingly difficult to work in the current environment. Studios are not spending nearly as much in development, so writers who do not present a sure, bankable thing have fewer opportunities to expand their ideas into complete projects. Financing for independent films has nearly disappeared, and the major studios’ emphasis on reliable box-office returns means that fewer and fewer small, more thoughtful films get from screenplay into production. Thus, opportunities for screenwriters are shrinking.
There was a time when Hollywood put writers on staff, paying them to develop ideas and to craft screenplays in order to feed a growing production machine. Now, virtually every film-writing job is freelance – that is, the screenwriter must pitch an idea to a studio or a producer; or must convince the producer that he or she would bring the just the right vision or chops to a project the studio has already decided to pursue; or must sell himself or herself as the perfect choice to rewrite or tighten up an already-drafted screenplay. And, of course, the screenwriter does not want to seem too demanding or uncooperative because that might make it harder to get hired on future projects. In other words, at each phase of the movie-making process, screenwriters increasingly devote themselves to self-marketing. This creates pressure on writers to offer more work for less pay—or even for no pay at all.
Perhaps classical economic theory would suggest this is a fine thing. And at some level of abstraction it is true that, when the supply of a particular service exceeds the demand, the price will drop. But that is more of an ideological construct than a description of the real world. If we want people to write compelling films that educate and entertain us, they need to be able to earn a decent living doing so; a race to the bottom, economically, would undermine the quality of what we watch. In any event, our research indicates that most of our members who are employed are paid significantly above the minimum rates negotiated by the union, and working members report that their “quotes” have been steady or have increased in recent years. It seems that getting a gig is more difficult than ever, and once you get the gig you have to work harder, but the pay has remained good. So much for classical economics.
People become screenwriters because it is their passion to create compelling films; to do that, they have to get hired (this includes people who bring complete ideas or scripts to the studio). And once they get hired, they want their vision to be realized on-screen – in other words, they want the movie to be made. This makes it very difficult to resist the pressure to write more for less compensation. In my view, as the WGAE grapples with the new realities of the film industry, we need to think about how to address this underlying dynamic. How do we protect members from the pressure to work for free in order to get hired to work for pay, and in order to get their movies made?
It is against Writers Guild rules to write without getting paid – no free writing to get hired, no free rewriting. But I am not sure a successful strategy can be based solely on requiring individual members to risk that they will not get hired, or will not have their work produced. In 2012, we hope to generate a robust conversation among screenwriters to develop better strategies. Our project is to identify other methods of ensuring that people who have devoted themselves to the craft of film-writing can be rewarded for their work and can earn a decent living. Perhaps there is a way to insist that the studios increase development funding, or make resources available for smaller films, or provide steadier employment for more writers. We shall see what some creative thinking can produce.
The WGAE represents content creators – people who write programs for the internet and other digital distribution systems (e.g., to mobile devices). We have argued in favor of Net Neutrality because our members want the opportunity to reach audiences directly, without major studios and other large corporations deciding what to distribute. But what about the audience? The public? Why should they care about Net Neutrality ?
For the same reason: the internet provides an unprecedented opportunity for people to experience the widest possible range of programming.
Not just shows that make money for networks and studios. Programming made by independent creators – indie films, off-beat comedies, short-form mysteries, programs that address important niche audiences who aren’t well-served by the current media conglomerates. Programming that presents unique viewpoints on important public issues such as race, sexuality, immigration, the economy.
If Net Neutrality fails, if a handful of large corporations effectively decide what people watch on the internet, these independent voices will not be heard. The culture and the nation will be the poorer for it.
There is an important aspect to the Net Neutrality debate that people should keep in mind: “paid prioritization”. This would permit Internet Service Providers to set up channels where content flows faster and with better quality. People are far more likely to watch programs on those fast lanes, rather than waiting for pokey downloads and suffering through images and sounds that stutter or freeze. Net Neutrality must apply to the entire internet. And that includes wireless digital distribution as well as wired.
With an FCC vote scheduled for December 21st , the future of Net Neutrality is uncertain. If the FCC chooses to abandon the principles of Net Neutrality an even stronger social movement will be needed to find other ways of protecting the open internet, be they legislative or otherwise.
It’s time for Net Neutrality advocates to redouble our efforts to court web video watchers, indie film fans and people who love web comedy sites to take action. These are the people who rely on the unbridled content of the open internet.
And it’s not just fanboys/girls who are tuning in. In fact, over 70% of internet users world-wide watch online video (A Global Nielsen Consumer Report). If even a fraction of those viewers understood what was at stake in terms of entertainment value alone, we’d be in a better position to win this fight.
The WGAE is not the first group to take the Net Neutrality campaign to YouTube, but please watch our new PSA by member Axel Giminez. He is one of the independent creators who depend on an open internet. I don’t want to imagine a world without stop-motion-animated absurdist videos and I hope you don’t either (watch the video)! Please join us in sending a message to the President by visiting WGAEast.org/SaveTheInternet. Let him know that viewers want him to act to preserve REAL Net Neutrality .