Cardboard Comedians and Fast Food Fare


"My plumber doesn’t charge me every time I flush the toilet." Lew Wasserman

The writers’ strike, orchestrated by the Writers Guild of America West and its sibling East wing, came to an end last week. Until it did, it supposedly crippled the American entertainment industry. The supply of humorous tender and drama had dried up (though you wouldn’t necessarily know it); the only laughs to be found were on the picket line and the websites that sprung up to support the WGA.

Some might argue that the strike was a blessing. The US entertainment industry is so clogged by cardboard comedians and fast food fare that a pause was probably needed. After years in the business, David Letterman, Jay Leno and David Kimmel don’t seem to be getting any better. And the actors didn’t care: they voiced their solidarity with the writers, thinning out award ceremonies at a rate of knots.

Instead, the strike has given audiences a chance to take stock of what exactly is being produced. As scriptwriter Andrew Johnston commented on the BBC website in November, the strike was necessary less for royalties than a reappraisal of "the mind-numbing quality of what we are churning out."

Besides, someone like Letterman ought to know his train of supply better – he suffered a disruption when working for NBC in 1988, the last time writers decided to withhold their scripts. Desperate for jokes, this time he struck a deal with the WGA before an official resolution of hostilities. Tom Cruise’s United Artists Films also struck an early deal. Producers and writers need each other.

Reality shows and repeats streamed into US living rooms in greater numbers than ever. Some projects were simply scrapped, while others – such as the prequel to the Da Vinci Code, Angels and Demons – were mercifully delayed.

So what did the strike actually accomplish? For one, according to Patric M Verrone of WGAW (the western branch of WGA), the strike was designed to "win jurisdiction and establish appropriate residuals for writing in new media and on the internet". He seemed confident that writers now had "a foothold in the digital age".

On paper, the writers got less than Verrone’s optimism might suggest. A minute slice of the digital revenues – a percentage payment on the distributor’s gross – was promised, but the practicalities of distributing said revenue were never worked out. New wireless technologies and devices will not make obtaining the promised revenue easier.

A body like the WGA is hard to love. The Guild’s requirements for admission in the first place have raised the ire of writers. And it’s difficult to sympathise with the scribes who front such a homogenous industry.

But if the WGA is unlikable, the producers – fronted by their hydra-headed corporations – are the true monsters. The producers’ negotiating alliance (AMPTP) baulked at the idea that writers would ask for two-thirds of a penny for every dollar spent on a DVD (as opposed to the current one-third). They proceeded to argue that the entire residual system should be abolished.

There is even an argument to be made – as Roger Wolfson did in the Huffington Post – that the companies engineered the situation in the first place, putting writers into a position in which they wanted a strike. Give the writers small beer at first instance – a mere fraction of what they might otherwise earn on future DVD sales – and save billions. This was the effect of the deal struck 20 years ago on video sales. The longer the strike, the more diffuse the resistance.

In the end, the writers held firmer than the producers would have liked. But the future in terms of how they capitalise on their gains is far from rosy.

In the meantime, we can return to the procession of thankless jokes and await the completion of Angels and Demons.

Launched in 2004, New Matilda is one of Australia's oldest online independent publications. It's focus is on investigative journalism and analysis, with occasional smart arsery thrown in for reasons of sanity. New Matilda is owned and edited by Walkley Award and Human Rights Award winning journalist Chris Graham.