Advice Goddess Blog
« Previous | Home | Next »

Why They Strike
Explaining the Writers Guild Strike.

Here's Roger L. Simon on it, and a few of his commenters (thanks for reminding me, Marion):

RE: Hollywood gets no sympathy from me. The current generation of writers are masters at creating garbage. We'd be much better off if they found new lines of work.

syn: I will not come to the defense of people whose crap has led to the closing of the American mind; Hollywood gets no sympathy from me eith

Curly Smith: ...The reason for the NYT, network news, music business, and TV entertainment demise is that their products are crap and they routinely insult a very large percentage of their potential audience. There is no originality, no creativity, no vision and it all results from the same thing -- liberal groupthink. Watch one show, you've seen them all; listen to one song, you're heard them all.

And Marshall Herskovitz, explaining the demise of "finsyn" in the LA Times:

After 20 years and five series, including "thirtysomething" and "My So-Called Life," my partner, Ed Zwick, and I have -- for the time being at least -- stopped producing television programs.

It's not personal. I count as friends many of the executives who work at the networks. We had a deal at one network, ABC, for all of those 20 years, and, in spite of many regime changes, we were always treated with great respect. This is not about how we were treated but rather something much larger: How a confluence of government policy and corporate strategy is literally poisoning the TV business.

It started in 1995 when the Federal Communications Commission abolished its long-standing "finsyn" rules (that's financial interest and syndication, for those unfamiliar with the term), allowing networks for the first time to own the programs they broadcast. Before that, under classic antitrust definitions, the networks had been confined to the role of broadcaster, paying a license fee to production companies for the right to broadcast programs just two times. The production companies owned all subsequent rights. In the mid-1990s there were 40 independent production companies making television shows. If a particular network didn't like a show -- as famously happened with "The Cosby Show" many years ago -- the production company could take it to another network.

But not after 1995. The abolition of the old rules set in motion an ineluctable process, one that has negatively affected every creative person I know in television. Today there are zero independent production companies making scripted television. They were all forced out of business by the networks' insistence -- following the FCC's fin-syn ruling -- on owning part or all of every program they broadcast.

The most profound change resulting from that ruling is the way networks go about the business of creating programming. Networks today exert a level of creative control unprecedented in the history of the medium. The stories my friends tell me would make me laugh if the situation weren't so self-defeating. Network executives routinely tell producers to change the color of the walls on sets; routinely decide on the proper wardrobe for actors; routinely have "tone" meetings with directors on upcoming pilots; routinely give notes on every page of a script. (When we did "thirtysomething" in the late '80s, we never received network notes.) And by the way, they have every right to do these things. As owners, they have a responsibility to satisfy themselves that their product is competitive and successful.

The problem, of course, is that these executives often have little background or qualification for making creative decisions. They are guided by market research and -- they want to believe -- a learned intuition about what the public wants. This season's new shows have been a good indicator of how successful that strategy is: Even before the current writer's strike, virtually every new show was struggling.

But the changes have gone further. Over the last few years -- during a time when network profits have been increasing -- salaries and profit participation for the writer-producers who create the shows have been slashed. Fees were cut by one-third to one-half, and profit participation in many cases was effectively eliminated. It's a curious (and peculiarly American) fact that many of the great artistic talents in the history of film and TV also have been entrepreneurs: Chaplin, Capra, Serling, Pakula, Lucas, Spielberg -- the list goes on. For reasons that are probably more psychological than anything else, creative and financial independence seem to go hand in hand.

Yet what we have now is a complete absence of either in the world of television. Your TV may receive 200 channels, but virtually every one of them is owned by one of six big companies -- NBC Universal, Disney, Time Warner, Viacom/Paramount, Sony and News Corp. And each channel has a brand identity dictated by those companies to which each program must adhere. Producers are now employees, not creators. If you were foolish enough to independently produce a TV pilot today, when you took it to the network, you would give up at least half of your ownership and all of your control, even though the network wouldn't pay any more than it used to pay as that old license fee.

Herskovitz announces that he and Zwick have jointed the migration to the Internet with a project called "quarterlife" (a story about a blogger from a look at the first clip on their site). It's "a series and a social network" (Ugh! Not another "social network"!) They "own and control" quarterlife, and they had to give up their TV deal to do it. The series will premiere Sunday on MySpace, and then on their site,, the next night.

The wave of the future? Perhaps.

Perhaps the networks should have been a little quicker to toss the writers their pennies, huh?

Posted by aalkon at November 8, 2007 7:44 AM


Thank you, Amy. I'm not typically a big union girl, but I'm behind the writers on this one, despite the fact that I'm a scripted-TV watcher who gets sad at the prospect of reruns.

What almost...amused me were the comments I saw on Roger Simon's site indicating that the writers deserve to lose their livelihoods because Hollywood produces so much crap. Well, I agree that Hollywood produces a lot of dreck, but I also know that only a small fraction of what gets written ever gets produced...and the producers have 100% control over what actually gets produced. If you want to blame writers for, say, not refusing to write an anti-war script, fine, but that anti-war script would never have turned into a mediocre movie starring Tom Cruise and Meryl Streep without the producers. There's also the fact that only a small number of entertainment writers ever make it big. People know about the waiter-to-successful-actor ratio, but somehow fail to realize that the ratio is similar for writers. If you think that some of the writers should have to put down their pens and Get a Real Job, fine...but that will not improve the quality of entertainment on your screens one iota.

Anyway, I saw a rumor somewhere that the strike may go on until which point the Screen Guild of America (i.e. the actors' union) will also strike. That should be interesting. The head of the SGA is siding pretty strongly with the WGA, and there are a lot of SGAers who aren't with the WGA out on the picket lines, so I would bet that a SGA strike would be more likely if the WGA is still striking.

Posted by: marion at November 8, 2007 8:08 AM

Yep, I'm with the writers on this too, because I'll bet there's been some really good stuff written that gets nixed by producers, simply because they (the dain-bramaged producers) think it might be too "deep" for the viewers, and they're afraid to take a gamble on the fact that many of them (the viewers) have brains enough to understand the "deep" stuff. And, of course, because the producers are greedy pig-dogs.

Posted by: Flynne at November 8, 2007 8:23 AM

Okay in my post above, substitute "producers" with "network executives" and it will make more sense.

Posted by: Flynne at November 8, 2007 8:28 AM

It happens anywhere there's a gatekeeper. I'd love to be in more papers, including the LA Times, where I'm banned from the features section.

Posted by: Amy Alkon at November 8, 2007 8:32 AM

And no, they aren't keeping me out because my work is bad. I beat them again this year for first place in the LA Press Club Awards -- for a funny advice column, beating one of their op-ed guys.

Posted by: Amy Alkon at November 8, 2007 8:37 AM

And no, they aren't keeping me out because my work is bad.

We know that, Amy. You're banned because you're funny, articulate, and not afraid to tell the truth, among others things.

Posted by: Flynne at November 8, 2007 8:44 AM

Are these deals similar for the other unions? Crid, what about editors?

they're afraid to take a gamble on the fact that many of them (the viewers) have brains enough to understand the "deep" stuff.

Why bother when "Dancing with the Stars" and other non- or pseudo-scripted shows are cheaper to produce and massively successful? The TV, film and music industries are businesses. Their decisions almost always make sense from a business perspective. Except for the music industry.

Posted by: justin case at November 8, 2007 8:44 AM

We know that Amy. You're most likely banned because you're funny, articulate, and tell the truth, among other things. o_O

Posted by: Flynne at November 8, 2007 8:45 AM

Sorry about the multiple postings. I was trying to correct horrific spelling errors after I clicked on the 'post' button. I'll go to my corner now. o_O

Posted by: Flynne at November 8, 2007 8:47 AM

Thanks, Flynne. And actually, the fact that I ask them to run my work instead of waiting under my desk to be discovered, is a problem for them. John Carroll, the former ed in chief told me this is why the editors in Calendar don't like me. Wow...sent them maybe four mass mailings a year, same as all the other papers, then maybe three personally written pitches. You'd think it's the editor's job to receive pitches from writers. At the last features editors conference, where all the editors were screaming "Local content, local content!" the editor the LAT sent pretty much hid from me, didn't even wave hello, and she's the one who published my Rambler story in the Magazine way back when.

Posted by: Amy Alkon at November 8, 2007 8:49 AM

I'm behind the AMPTP 100%. Here's my five reasons.

A summary for those who don't like to click links:

1) Residuals are dumb (an outdated mode of compensation dreamed up in a different era)
2) Unions are dumb (an outmoded model of labor/management relationships that have long outlived their usefulness in all industries)
3) If the internet is the wave of the future, then you are better of unencumbered by studio politics, sell direct (like Zwick is doing).
4) I can buy stock in media companies, so I have a (potential) interest in them being as profitable as possible.
5) The writers are acting like a bunch of goddamn commie-lovin' pinko hippies (red shirts, chants, etc)

If the writers got everything they wanted, I seriously doubt the quality of product would improve (likewise if the producers win, quality won't suffer), it would just mean that the studios would be more reluctant to test out new media markets with 'niche' stuff that has smaller potential audiences.

The current set up encourages huge distortions in accounting practices to hide profits and revenue. Adding a new revenue stream to the mix will just keep the lawyers and accountants extra busy, I doubt much get in the pockets of the writers. None of the writers involved in this strike will likely make up what they stand to lose by this work action, while if the studios hold firm, they can absorb the losses in this quarter and can look forward to a more profitable future. That's the main reason why the studios can survive this, play hardball, and will win in the end. They have the leverage, not the writers.

Posted by: xwl at November 8, 2007 9:26 AM

"Thirtysomething" & "My So Called Life" better than "Cold Case" & "Heroes"? I don't think so.

Posted by: Zwick sucs at November 8, 2007 9:44 AM

Wow...could you not say that in your own name?

Posted by: Amy Alkon at November 8, 2007 10:12 AM

"Thirtysomething" & "My So Called Life" better than "Cold Case" & "Heroes"? I don't think so.

Thirtysomething was awful. MSCL was terrific (I have an old college friend who used to watch this with me and we still get a laugh out of one another by saying stuff like "Its like, so out there . . . or whatever, you know?"). Heroes is spotty. I boycott all procedural clones.

I don't know much about the antitrust background on all this, but it doesn't seem to me that the quality:crap ratio is any different now then it was fifteen years ago. In fact, with DVDs and TIVO, I'd say 90% of what I consume is quality now (it would be 100% but we haven't jettisoned Desperate Housewives or Grey's Anatomy yet, despite a marked drop in quality on both). I have no dogs in this race. They'll work it out eventually. In the meantime, I've got 3 more disks of Jericho to watch.

Posted by: snakeman99 at November 8, 2007 10:32 AM

Meh, I really don't care too much. I sympathize with the writers and feel they are getting the shaft but then they're working with the poll driven producers to make utter drek (I'm one of those 18-30 males who has fled for the net and video games). There are bright spots in tv these days but most is just crud. I think I watch maybe 2-3 hours of primetime a week these days and its been going down 30-90mins/week for the past few years.

Also, Amy I'm guessing the LA Times doesnt like you because you often will bash feminists and the status quo in relationships in you column, the ashtray thrower letter being a prime example.

Posted by: JS at November 8, 2007 10:35 AM

> what about editors?

As a non-union (or sometime-union) slut, I make a living in casual ventures and don't have a horse in this race. Meanwhile, xwl and Zwicksucs offer compelling arguments.

"Creativity" is overrated in the popular mind. There are people who think it's very important to be creative, and other people who dream of working in creative fields. And many teenage girls are encouraged in the fantasy that a creative personality is a singular blessing to be wished for, a strumy-drangy burden for which allowances are often demanded, but it's worth it because that spark is so precious.

I, personally, am not a creative guy, but I've bumped into a few, and have taken small roles in creative ventures. And the truth is that creativity is a pain in the ass. It takes an incredible amount of work, the risks are terrifying, and the money people are always crawling around with scissors and knives looking to collect testes. The greatest beneficiaries of a creative venture are never sufficiently grateful or even aware of the value that's been built into their new assets.

So creativity is just like any work, only moreso. You don't need to encourage it explicitly. It will always be provided as it is needed and as it is earned. And when a politician starts talking about it, grab your wallet and run like hell. To rhetorically demand more creativity is like walking a picket line to demand tomorrow's sunrise.

If these writers are an important part of whatever venture the internet brings, why wouldn't their contributions be compensated by the usual market tensions?

I've never watched a single episode of any of the shows zwicksucs mentioned. Did I miss anything critical to the Republic? Do you and I need to worry about this?

Posted by: Crid at November 8, 2007 10:51 AM

"If these writers are an important part of whatever venture the internet brings, why wouldn't their contributions be compensated by the usual market tensions?"

Crid, collective bargaining IS one of the "usual market tensions" at work here. That may not be the case in most of America anymore, but in those few arenas where unions remain powerful (entertainment, LAUSD), this is exactly how the writers will protect their future compensation.

Otherwise, I wholeheartedly agree with your take that "you and I" need not worry about this. There are plenty of other avenues for entertainment out there.

Side note - If anyone out there knows, I'd be curious as to what other ventures striking writers are allowed to pursue. I'm a big graphic novel fan and there's a lot of talk of TV writers carpet-bagging in the comic book world. Is there anything preventing them from writing novels?

Posted by: snakeman99 at November 8, 2007 11:08 AM

Thanks for this, Amy. It explains much. For instance, how a show like Firefly got cancelled and was never picked up by another network. I have to say, I'm behind the writers on this, too.

Posted by: Anne at November 8, 2007 12:13 PM

And it's not just the writers suffering, it's a lot of other people behind the scenes, like hairdressers, caterers, etc.:

Posted by: Flynne at November 8, 2007 12:25 PM

I've never watched a single episode of any of the shows zwicksucs mentioned. Did I miss anything critical to the Republic?

I find Heroes to be thoroughly enjoyable TV, though it might not reach your "critical to the Republic" threshold.

Posted by: justin case at November 8, 2007 1:33 PM

Just sayin', this is a labor dispute like any other, and when people say there are "creative" implications, we shouldn't presume that means we have to have an opinion on who's right or wrong.

Posted by: Crid at November 8, 2007 1:42 PM

Isn't there a way they could both lose?

Posted by: brian at November 8, 2007 4:11 PM

Per the link Flynne posted, I suspect my showrunner friends are like Mark Cherry:

Marc Cherry, executive producer and creator of "Desperate Housewives," said he was paying a couple of his assistants out of his own pocket since they're not on ABC's payroll anymore.

"We'll take care of our own," he said.

Posted by: Amy Alkon at November 8, 2007 5:11 PM

Firefly delights me no end. I'm sure it was canned because of content offensive to a small but vocal number of people: Inara slept with a female government official, kissing her on-screen, and Mal was tortured, to a degree I found surprising for a network show. Regardless of network concerns, its fans go on about everything in detail, hotter about the show and its characters than Star Trek's people are because of brand, and thus idea, dilution at Paramount. Its merit is reflected in the fan base; growing numbers of Browncoats appear at conventions like Dragoncon.

What saddens me is that the writers' strike isn't going to bring back the independent production company. Just as in the radio business, where "payola" was a scandal when money went to DJs but big corporate deals are accepted without question, the machinations of the industry are invisible and thus of no concern to the public, many of whom are pleased enough with the NFL and "reality" shows (barf!) to ignore a house fire.

I find it amusing to hear that "thirtysomething sucked", because some of the lines in it ring true today. In a scene between Ken Olin and David Clennon concerning a promotion Miles (David) is offering Michael (Ken), Miles says (roughly, going from memory here) that "if the new position is a problem, then, you have to decide what to do. We are paid well to assure the public that if they use our client's products, all will be well with the world. To that public, history is last week's People magazine." Every series has gems and stinkers among its episodes.


You should know that the current network darlings are visibly trying to compensate for a lack of quality already. CSI, especially the Miami version, is drawing out scenes with added camera work because they have less to say. They routinely falsify actual police work because of the "hint" factor, and they pay no attention to actual law or even basic police field tactics. Watch the network's own advertising become more shrill as this becomes more apparent. Because there are places networks won't go, I don't expect quality anywhere. I am surprised to see it; a large part of Babylon 5's demise, and the miserable attempt "Crusade" presented, was due to network meddling. Hello, executives? SHUT UP. You are robbing your audience of a chance to be surprised!

Fortunately for me, DVD collections exist that allow study of shows beyond the degree possible sans the "pause" button. Did you know Granny's stove on Beverly Hillbillies had eight burners arranged in a circle?

Posted by: Radwaste at November 8, 2007 5:24 PM

The only writer this residual issue isn't going to affect is the guy who adapted "Battlefield Earth".

Posted by: Gog_Magog_Carpet_Reclaimers at November 8, 2007 5:57 PM

While I am no great fan of Hubbard as a man I do enjoy some of his ficton, though not the same ficton most of hollywood seems to enjoy.

Anyway - who ever addapted Battlefield Earth should be slowly trtured to death. Same goes for the morons who adapted 'The Westing Game' and 'The Dark Is Rising'

Posted by: lujlp at November 8, 2007 7:02 PM

I just wanted to respond to xwl's comments:

1. First of residuals aren't dumb. They actually make a lot of sense as an economic model because it works as incentive toward making a more successful product and it alleviates some of the initial risk. It's incredibly difficult to tell what's going to work and what won't work. Miniziming this risk and paying out after something actually is successful and not paying when it's not makes sense.

2. The WGA is not dumb. The union allows people who write and help studios make giant dollars to make a living. It prevents writing staffs from being canned and replaced with "interns" who just want there work to "be seen." I'd love to see you try and negotiate with a network or studio and see what kind of deal you could make without a union. You have no idea how many people want to be writers and how many scripts are floating around.

3. Writers are not producers. What your linked article is ranting about is what producers should be doing (and some are). Writing and producing are two different professions and are two completely different skills. Some writers produce, but many prefer simply to their job and write.

4. Which is a better business decision - negotiating with the writers for the 3 cents per dvd there asking for or losing millions and millions in ad dollars by not running new shows. I'd rather invest in the business that avoided the strike in the first place AND kept making profits by expanding their business.

5. Greedy fat cats who make their money off the talent and backs of others and then they get all pissed when someone has the nerve to fight back.

I mean really

Posted by: flighty at November 8, 2007 7:48 PM

1. First of residuals aren't dumb. They actually make a lot of sense as an economic model because it works as incentive toward making a more successful product and it alleviates some of the initial risk. It's incredibly difficult to tell what's going to work and what won't work. Miniziming this risk and paying out after something actually is successful and not paying when it's not makes sense.

This is the model in publishing, too. After you earn back your advance, you get a percentage of book sales. The better your book sells, the more money you make.

Furthermore, just because somebody is making money in Hollywood doesn't make them a "greedy" whatever. There are many writers who don't make a sale for years, and not because they're untalented or write bad shows or films.

I've seen clips of an absolutely hilarious animated comedy by two very successful TV writer friends of mine. I was screaming with laughter watching their sample. If production execs had brains or any ability to suss out what people want to watch, they would have licked these guys' shoes until they sold it to them. I believe it remains unsold.

Posted by: Amy Alkon at November 8, 2007 8:12 PM

If you want a sobering picture of the film / television business, start counting the actors, then count all the shows. A few have "star power"; many more have serious chops with no steady way to use them. I noticed this first with NYPD Blue. Seriously good roles were being nailed by people I'd never heard of. Now and then a script lets them shine. Cold Case is amazingly uneven, with a mix of "old" and "young" characters to show for just a few seconds at a time, but it's still a good place to see this.

It's competition. You'll end up seeing what sells the most Kleenex.

Posted by: Radwaste at November 9, 2007 7:13 AM

Leave a comment