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Looming Writers Guild strike means television's about to get a lot less funny

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On Mon., Nov. 5 at one minute past midnight, the Writers Guild of America officially went on strike due to contract breakdowns with the Alliance of Motion Picture & Television Producers. This strike ensures that some of our favourite shows--like The Daily Show, The Colbert Report, and Late Night with Conan O'Brien--will be off-air until a contract is released, and that reality and game shows will slowly take over the airwaves in an attempt to fill up programming space left in the void.

The current strike is over a contentious issue in Hollywood. The writers are looking for a larger share of the royalties off their work from both DVDs and new forms of distribution like streaming webcasts--on which the writers make no profit at all. Negotiations broke down on Thu. because of AMPTP's refusal to establish a new way of determining royalties off of DVDs and the previously-mentioned new media distribution. The writers are asking for a doubling of their royalties, known as residuals, from four to eight cents. They also want this formula extended to distribution over the internet. Conversely, the studios themselves want the former residual formula of four cents to be applied to internet distribution, and are unwilling to negotiate on raising the residuals at all for DVDs.

This strike is just one in a long series of writers strikes in Hollywood. The last strike, an ugly ordeal in the summer of 1988, lasted four and a half brutal months for the entertainment industry. Consumers flocked to the home video markets and stopped watching television almost altogether as late-night television was immediately put into reruns. The estimated costs of the 22-week strike was $500 million and ended up pushing the fall television schedule into the winter to make up for lost production time. In an article published Sat., Nov. 3 by Reuters, economists estimated that if the current strike were to last as long as the 1988 strike, it would cost the entertainment industry a total of $1 billion.

One of the most obvious questions to the public is how this strike could affect their enjoyment of film and television. Television production is extraordinarily affected by this strike, while film production is sitting somewhat pretty. Late-night television comedies like The Daily Show and Late Show With David Letterman will be immediately taken off the air. The shows cannot be topical without writers and, because of their nightly nature, would flounder if the hosts have to "wing it" Ã la David Letterman in 1988--famously, Letterman had a man shave him on air while telling the audience there were still 55 minutes left in the program.

Television dramas and comedies normally have a few shows already being put through post-production, with even a few more un-shot scripts waiting in the wings. The crunch won't be felt immediately, but the winter television season would become lacklustre at best if the strike were to last even two months. Most of these shows would be slowly replaced with programs that have non-unionized staff, like game shows and reality television, or by news programs whose writers are in a different union. Because reality television has slowly been losing its lustre, it would potentially drive audiences away from the medium just as television thrillers like Heroes or Prison Break have started winning viewers.

The producers are now attempting to portray the writers as greedy Lamborghini drivers who just need another ivory backscratcher. This isn't true and is a transparent attempt by the producers to villainize the writers and make them seem much more covetous than they truly are. Most writers aren't rich and affluent; like most people, Hollywood writers have normal, middle-class existences--except they get to write movie and television scripts for a living. It's not as glamorous as it's made out to be.

The official website of the Alliance of Motion Picture and Television Producers asserts the average Hollywood writer makes over $200,000 a year, and that the royalty increases requested are too much. This statistic is quite ugly and misleading--the few multimillionaire writers end up skewing the data significantly. The website also links to articles of Republican politicos waxing poetic about how the writers' strike will only hurt the writers themselves. Of course, these political hacks also rant and rave about the United State's Iraq policy, so their judgement is suspect.

Comparatively, the writer's guild states the biggest stumbling block--royalties from DVDs--would only cost $220 million over three years. Last year alone, DVD sales and rentals accrued $24.4 billion according to the accounting firm of PricewaterhouseCoopers. The money for an increase in royalties for DVDs is there. The question of internet distribution is more muddy, with the producers stamping their feet and swearing that the writers get some money off of it, but the writers themselves deny they receive any at all. On Sun., AMPTP has been going back on its words about refusing to meet the writers concerning the new media distribution--showing that even the spectre of a strike has moved the producers somewhat.

This strike is just one of many conflicts between organized labour and the power elite in America. With this strike, though, it actually affects people outside of the union and the industry. Unfortunately, it's because people won't be able to find out what happens to Claire Bennett or just how the hell the survivors get off the island. Hopefully, the strike shows the increased ability of organized labour to affect meaningful workplace change, because unlike in other industries where you can outsource the unionized labour to India or China, you can't outsource the creative personnel in Hollywood.

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