Striking writers use Web to fight back

(Note: This is cross-posted from my Globe and Mail blog)

“Never pick a fight with someone who buys ink by the barrel,” Mark Twain reportedly said, by which he presumably meant that one should think twice before making a writer or journalist mad. In Hollywood, the writers who create most of our TV shows and movies (and yes, I’m including Canada in that) are definitely mad, and they are showing it by doing what they do best: writing.

Some are writing opinion pieces for traditional media such as the New York Times and Newsweek, while others are taking their case online. Thanks to the Internet, writers can not only whip together and publish a blog for virtually nothing, but can also create and upload video to promote their case against the big studios and TV networks.

On the Web, in other words, ink doesn’t just come by the barrel; it’s virtually unlimited, and almost free. And it gives the writers a powerful platform to advance their case that they didn’t have during their last strike in 1989.

It’s more than a little ironic, in fact, that the very tools content owners are using to generate new revenue — which the writers say they are being denied a share of — are the same tools writers are using to get their message out. One of the central gathering points for strike information online is UnitedHollywood, a blog created by several union organizers with the Writers Guild, which keeps track of commentary both online and off about the strike, including videos and photo galleries.

The site features a video by the writers of The Daily Show, the popular satirical news show, in which the writers put on a version of the show from a desk set up in the middle of a picket line. Another video from the writers of The Colbert Report is a hilarious satire of a studio executive.

Other videos from the picket line include one that features an interview with the showrunner (or senior writer) from Everybody Hates Chris, in which he is joined by former child actor Todd Bridges, as well as one with comedian Sarah Silverman and several of the actors from her new show.

Other stars who show up in videos linked to from UnitedHollywood include Ray Romano, Jason Alexander, Zach Braff, Nicolette Sheridan, Ben Stiller, Sally Field and director-producer Garry Marshall. Many of the videos are also linked to from a strikers’ blog called StrikePoints. Most of the videos have been uploaded to a channel on YouTube, and several of them have gotten 5,000 views or more in just one or two days. One video featuring the writers from The Office has gotten almost 500,000 views in less than a week and has over a thousand comments.

In the video by the team from The Daily Show, the writers do pretty much the same thing they do on the show itself: they create a pseudo news-clip that pokes fun at an important issue, but that also manages to sneak in a bunch of facts in order to make a real point.

The point of that video and others on the site is that the corporations behind the major studios and TV networks are telling shareholders and analysts one thing about online revenues, and telling writers another. While the videos are amusing, the quotes that they use from executives such as Viacom chairman Sumner Redstone and CEO Phillipe Dauman — in addition to the slides that are included from various corporate presentations to investors and analysts — are fairly damning.

In a nutshell, the major media conglomerates have promised hundreds of millions of dollars in extra revenue from online and digital media such as “webisodes,” cellphone clips, streaming Web video and other services. In negotiations with the Guild, however, the companies in charge of the talks say digital media is too new to be able to gauge what kind of revenue might be available in the future, and so are promising very little.

Although the strike is only a week old, all the online lobbying by writers seems to be working: According to an article in Variety, two surveys show that writers have the support of more than 60 per cent of the people surveyed, while the studios and networks have the support of less than 10 per cent.


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