Posted by Oli on Saturday 10th November, 2007
I’ve long held an affinity for the way the American’s make their television. They have a solid work ethic, a prodigious output and some incredibly high-quality programming which is all churned out based on a very rigid formula of writing and producing a season of some 20-25 episodes per year.
Most US shows work on a rolling basis, with a team of writers (the “Writers’ Room”, supervised by the Executive Producer/Head Writer or “Showrunner”) coming together to pitch storylines, plot character arcs and map out the direction of the show for the coming weeks and months pretty regularly, then going away and writing individual episodes alone. Every show has a slightly different way of doing things, but most hour-long or half-hour shows work to the same essential template – Lost, Desperate Housewives, 24, Bones, E.R., Scrubs, House, Friends, you name it, they’re all run the same way.
A big part of the success of American television, of course, is the sheer size of the budgets that they throw at their dramatic or comedic output. Compared to the cash we spend on our “series”, the Americans spend a small fortune on each episode, treating each 43-minutes of screen time (for an hour-long show, to make way for the commericals) as a mini-feature film. We might think we have big-budget blockbuster shows over here, but even our biggest extravagances like Dr Who or Robin Hood pale in comparison – and they only run for 13 eps a season.
This extra money goes not only into “on screen” elements, but also means that they can afford the “writers’ rooms” which create the shows, something which is prohibitvely expensive over here. If you’re creating a 6-part series (as most shows are over here, ignoring the tent-pole BBC Who and Hood and the “continuing dramas” which we refer to as “Soaps”), it’s much cheaper and easier to use one or two writers to write the whole thing, with a little creative input from the Producer(s) and possibly director(s) as you go than to hire a team of writers to work together on it.
In any case, British writers aren’t schooled in the writers’ room methods, meaning that even if we did try to do it their way, we’d probably end up turning out TV-Camels* rather than the American’s well-practiced Horses. (That said, there are still a huge number of US shows which fail to hit the mark and never see more than a few episodes or a single season. Just look at Studio 60, or try Googling “Viva Laughlin”, it’s just that we rarely see them over here because our networks don’t pick them up)
All of which is just a long preamble into talking about what’s going on in the States at the moment, namely the Writers’ Guild of America strike which has seen writers from all of the country’s top shows – as well as their rubbish ones, too – down pencils, power-down desktops, shut their notebooks and hit the picket lines after negotiations on their new contract with the studios who produce their work broke down.
Essentially, the Writers’ Guild of America is like any other labour union (or, since they’re American, labor union) in that they negotiate the basic rates of pay that their members can expect and, indeed, demand, if they are working on studio movies and/or TV shows. As part of the minimum deal, writers are entitled to “residuals”, which means every time the show is aired on TV, they get a small payment (based on what money the Studio makes) and every time someone buys a copy of the DVD they get a small payment. As it stands, they receive a whopping $0.04 per $18.99 DVD sold.
The main bone of contention, however, is not with the DVD residuals (although they would like to double it to $0.08 per DVD, it’s not a deal-breaker, by most accounts), it is with digital “airplay” – the streaming of episodes via the Studio’s websites or the downloading of the shows through new-media outlets like iTunes and their ilk. Right now, the writers who create the shows and are valued enough to earn good money and acceptable residuals on TV-play and DVD-sales get nothing for internet use of their work. Nothing at all.
Now, the in’s and out’s of all this are clearly numerous and well-covered in many places across the ‘net – if you want to know more and more specifics, click the logo above right to go to the striker’s website, or see the explanations on YouTube – but suffice it to say from me that it seems completely, bafflingly down-right criminal that the Studios should be claiming that they don’t make money from paid-for downloads of shows and from the advertising they sell to tack on to the streamed versions.
The writers, honestly and fairly I believe, think that they are entitled to a similar cut of the profits of their shows from the internet as they get from all other forms of their distribution. And since it’s very likely that more and more TV is likely to be seen via the ‘net in the years to come – indeed, many people are predicting that the ‘net will become the primary source for our television consumption in the next decade or so – it stands to reason that the writers want in on it.
There are always going to be the people who disagree with the principle of writers receiving residuals for work they’ve already done and I’m not really interested in trying to turn those people around, but beyond there I don’t see how anyone can say that writers don’t deserve a cut of the digital profits. It’s not greed, it’s just fair and decent. If you accept the principal that they should be paid a cut of the profits from screenings and sales of their work, then online sales has to come into the equation.
Anyway, all of that is a very, very long-winded and roundabout way of saying that I’m wholeheartedly supporting the American writers in their strike action and that if I were being paid to write now, I’d be putting my pencil down and if I could walk more than 10m without needing a long sit-down, I’d be with them on the picket lines. If I was in the States. As it is, I’ve just signed this petition. Which is about all I can do, as well as urging you to do it too.
For now, the strike is having little impact on our TV schedules, but if it goes on more than a few more weeks, we’re going to see pretty big holes open up in our Spring schedules, including things like Season 2 of Heroes, Season 4 of Lost and many others besides.
It’s nice to write about something other than feeling rubbish.
* the old famous saying, “A camel is a horse designed by a committee.”