Chicago Sun-Times: ‘Strike Demands Are Reasonable’

Are Hollywood writers' strike demands reasonable?

YES | All they want is small slice of new media pie

by Andrea Sarvady

Chicago Sun-Times

December 1, 2007

Late-night talk shows are in reruns, and America is getting more sleep — especially since the writers' strike itself sure isn't keeping anyone up at night. After all, the thinking goes, why do a bunch of rich Hollywood writers need a union anyway?

Take a closer look at this labor dispute, and you'll quickly see that this is about more than an opportunity to catch Jay Leno passing out doughnuts in a picket line.

A central bargaining system helps both management and staff in an industry with countless separate productions. Yet don't imagine both sides have equally deep pockets. A misleading statistic bandied about is that the average Writers Guild of America member makes $204,000 a year. The far more significant number is the median writing income — a whopping $5,000 a year. In other words, skim the millionaires off the top and the picture shifts dramatically to one of many underemployed creatives, hoping to stay in the middle class through moonlighting and residuals.

When the Writers Guild agreed to paltry residuals for DVD sales, it reluctantly bought into the assertion of network and studio executives that this was an unproven market. Writers instantly regretted their compliance; DVDs brought in $24 billion in revenues last year alone.

The biggest sticking point now is new media: residuals for work seen on the Internet, cell phones and iPods. Once again, management is pulling out the tired old claim that they would absolutely love to compensate writers more, but it sees new media profits as unpredictable. Meanwhile, industry executives are saying just the opposite to investors and the public. Typical is Viacom CEO Sumner Redstone's claim, caught on videotape, that ''Viacom will double its revenue in digital.''

What if the new media bonanza is indeed a shooting star, dying as soon as it soars into sight? This is where management's argument totally falls apart. Think about it: All the writers want is a small cut should massive profits once more be realized. As industry blogger Jan McLaughlin put it: ''Five percent of nothing is nothing. What do the studios lose if Internet entertainment never proves a gold mine? Nothing. If Internet-based entertainment makes money — share. Share with the people who helped you make the magic happen.''

Andrea Sarvady is a writer and educator specializing in counseling and a married mother of three who lives in the Atlanta area.

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