Jon Robin Baitz on “Dickensian hubris”

Tip of the nib to the Los Angeles Times’ Show Tracker blog for this open letter from “Brothers & Sisters” creator/exec producer Jon Robin Baitz. I’ve posted it in its entirety under Opinions From the Front in the sidebar, but here’s a selection:

It is my sad conclusion that there is a faction within AMPTP that wishes to break the guild or at very least, gore it, and wait this out, so as to cynically write off an entire season of unprofitable programming decisions and lay the way for future gains…. As a means of negotiating, stonewalling on the income from internet and future media with very creators of the content, seems, in the seventh year of this century, steeped in Dickensian hubris, a-historic, and finally, unsustainable.

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  1. whatever says:

    Hard verifiable undeniable facts? Right. Most people realize that there is a large amount of “spinning” of the truth about these negotiations from both sides. Each side has made proposals that the other refused to respond to. Each side made concessions, too. There was talk for awhile of the writers waiting to strike for a few months, or untilbut they eventually decided instead to present an ultimatum and then strike. There are lots of relevant facts. And it is not a fact that the writers had to strike now (or else sit on their hands and cry)– that was a choice.
    AS I said, I support writers getting a piece of the residuals, but I’ll stand by my statement that the studios do not yet know how to make big profits online. Instead, they are experimenting, which has its own substantial costs to the studios and involves a constant evolution as technology evolves. Studios are trying to evolve in order to save their own business — the one that pays the writers so well (and I think their salaries are very material to this discussion, which is really about whether this strike was necessary or well conceived). The attached gives a little more info about that jeff zucker/ Universal stuff:
    http://blog.wired.com/business/2007/10/nbc-exec-voices.html
    You say “Things will get worse because the Internet and TV are converging. Or have you not noticed? TV shows purchased via iTunes can appear on your home theater via AppleTV. Amazon.com’s Unbox wants to sell movies directly to my Tivo. Netflix has a plan. NBC/Universal has a plan. ABC/Disney has a plan. They all have plans because they know they can make money. They’ve proven this and you are 100 percent wrong when you say they haven’t.”
    Well, you simply miss my point. Of course the studios are making plans to deal with this emerging technology, but nobody can predict what’s going to really work for them– and they are currently investing a lot in whichever directions they hope will work. They are bearing the risks of these efforts as well as taking in whatever money they can attract. ANd there IS some money being made by studios (but it’s not yet big money), and there will certainly be more in the future,but the writers, too have to adjust to the idea that this new media doesn’t work like TV traditionally has. And this media is going to make TV itself less profitable (but, you’re right that, fortunately, nobody is talking about reducing the TV writers’ salaries accordingly). Indeed, the studios should not hide all heir revenue from online streaming as being simply “promotional”, but the fact is that some of it just that — they hope to bring people back to their TVs to watch the shows because that’s still where most of the money is. Further, as the studios will be putting their expensive-to-produce content in competition with content from people all over the world (much of which is free), is it any wonder that they would want to develop a sustainable business model before developing a residual accounting system that will become the standard for all “talent” and that will be cited to as the “floor” in all future negotiations. That is why I believe this is an issue to be finessed with/by the writers — one that brings the writers to the table and gives them a share of what’s actually there at a given time rather than what might be there in the future.
    In any case, with respect to my main point that this STRIKE is selfish and ill-conceived, I think think salaries matter a lot. The writers are well-compensated for their work but want a bigger piece of the pie. Meanwhile, they are putting out of work thousands of people who work even harder, get no piece of the pie, and get far less in salary, quality of life, etc. [Why doesn’t everyone get a piece of that pie, anyway? Is it because we know that lines have to be drawn somewhere and those people are somehow more fungible? That doesn’t seem right, but then again most of us who work do so for a flat salary and don’t get to share in our employer’s profits — entertainment is a fairly unique industry in that respect.]
    The fact that at any time “at least half of the WGA is not working” doesn’t really seem compelling. If they can’t find work as a writer, then they can find some other (albeit less interesting and rewarding) work to supplement or replace that income (again, like the rest of us). When I think about, say, teachers, who work for a fraction of what teacher’s make, don’t get any extra benefit for their successes, and almost universally have to find separate work during the summers to supplement their income, it’s hard to be really sympathetic EVEN THOUGH I agree that writers ultimately should get some share of the residuals simply because that’s the way their industry works.
    I happen to believe that your so-called “undeniable facts” are far more nuanced and complex than you do, and I believe a more nuanced approach would be the way to deal with this, but obviously your point of view carries the day.

  2. Clark Perry says:

    Wrong, wrong, wrong.
    The studios broke off negotiations. The writers were there at the table and even offered to drop renegotiations of DVD residuals to tackle the online issue. When someone breaks off negotiations, you have two options. Sit on your hands and cry, or strike.
    The studios HAVE figured out how to make profits on online content. NBC raked in $15 million selling shows on iTunes last year (then they walked away from Apple because they felt that wasn’t enough money).
    http://www.engadget.com/2007/10/29/jeff-zucker-says-itunes-deal-only-netted-nbc-universal-15-milli/
    The writers of those shows? They didn’t make a penny. Not a cent. Nothing. NADA. Get it?
    Now some networks are streaming shows for “free” to online viewers. Well, if it’s free, there’s no profit, so there should be no residuals, right? Zero divided by zero is zero. But wait a second … look at the profits column of this deal … the studios are selling advertising space before and during the stream. They are MAKING MONEY FROM ONLINE CONTENT, something you claim they don’t know how to do. The studios protest they don’t owe writers residuals from this because it’s a “promotional” viewing. Remember that word, I’m coming back to that in a moment.
    This is not about writers’ salaries. It’s about residuals, which are often more important than salaries. The average writer’s salary is a total and utter non-issue. Nobody’s talking about it in this labor dispute, so why are you? At any time, at least half of the WGA is not working. What’s paying the bills during these times, which can often last for years? Residuals.
    Things will get worse because the Internet and TV are converging. Or have you not noticed? TV shows purchased via iTunes can appear on your home theater via AppleTV. Amazon.com’s Unbox wants to sell movies directly to my Tivo. Netflix has a plan. NBC/Universal has a plan. ABC/Disney has a plan. They all have plans because they know they can make money. They’ve proven this and you are 100 percent wrong when you say they haven’t.
    And if they get away with calling every one of these future sales “promotional” to avoid paying residuals that are rightfully due to the writers of the content… and this indeed is the broadcasting wave of the future (you acknowledge the presence of dinosaurs, yet fail to follow the path of evolution) … there will be no more residuals for writers.
    You display a severe lack of understanding with regards to any of these very basic and elemental issues. And look: I’m no expert, and if anyone more knowledgeable chimes in to correct any misperceptions I may have, I’ll certainly listen to them.
    But there’s no reason to listen to you on this. You’ve chosen an apt name, whatever. It seems to be your response when you encounter a hard, verifiable, undeniable fact.

  3. whatever says:

    Well, Clark, I am responding to the original comment that the Studios somehow planned for this in order to “write off an entire season,” which is also ridiculous because they have already paid a huge portion of the costs of the shows in production. I understand why the writers wanted to cause MAXIMUM PAIN TO THE STUDIOS, but that WAS their decision, not the studios’. Furthermore, I think you are wrong (a) that the writers have been getting screwed for 20 years and (b) that if they don’t make a stand RIGHT NOW, it’ll get “worse.” On (a), the average salary for a working TV writer is about $200k per year, with the starting salary being somewhere near $100k. Those salary amounts have been climbing steadily over the past 20 years, and the writers have also been earning residuals on DVD sales. I realize that it is a volatile profession, but it also one that most TV writers would not trade for any other profession, both because it allows them to work doing what they enjoy doing and because it actually pays them well to do so (unlike almost any other writing profession). It also gives them a GREAT quality of life — with long hours on certain days balanced by big blocks of time off and other time to work from home.
    As it happens, I’m all for writers getting some residuals for online content, but I think that the studios really haven’t figured out how to make big profits off that content yet and the writers would do better to do as the studios had asked and work with them to figure out how to account for such profits. You know — actually negotiating, rather than putting out ultimata and then deciding to shut the industry down. I realize that’s not your bent, though.
    As someone else said on some other thread here, the studios are, sort of, dinosaurs trying to prop up what might be a declining industry (both TV and theatrical films) and trying to figure out how to make money within the quickly changing online world. Writers don’t seem to accept that by striking now, shutting down shows and putting thousands of people out of work, and shifting many out of entertainment permanently, they are helping to tank that profitable industry that pays them so well. That’s not in the writers or the studio’s interest.
    And I’d like to know on what you base your statement that things will get “Worse” if they don’t strike now. Are their salaries going down or are they losing the residuals they already get? (fyi, the answer to both questions is no — the studios have already taken off the table, while the parties were NEGOTIATING, a proposal that might have reduced the residuals.

  4. Clark Perry says:

    to whatever: well, fuckin’ DUH!
    Of course they wanted to time the strike for maximum impact on studios. A STRIKE IS SUPPOSED TO CAUSE MAXIMUM PAIN. THAT’S THE WHOLE POINT OF A STRIKE.
    With your last sentence, you seem to imply that you’re learned when it comes to labor disputes. The fact that you can’t grasp that basic point says otherwise.
    I’m not a WGA member, but I support the writers 100 percent on this. They’ve been getting screwed for 20 years now, and if they don’t make a stand, it’ll only get worse.

  5. whatever says:

    I think this is ridiculous. This Strike didn’t have to happen and it didn’t have to happen when it did. The negotiations could have continued right through this season if the writers had wanted. Instead, the writers wanted to time it for the maximum impact on studios.
    Believe it or not, lots of labor disputes do get resolved without strikes.

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