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Writers are winning over the public

Study shows people side with scribes

There’s an image war raging during the WGA strike, and the writers seem to be winning.

Public sympathy sides with the scribes, as a study, released Wednesday, indicates.

And during the past few weeks, mainstream media outlets have devoted significant coverage to the strike in news stories and op-ed pieces. Slate’s Jack Shafer noted Tuesday that such coverage has been generally sympathetic.

It certainly helps the writers that the companies with which they are at war have CEOs that have to talk out of both sides of their mouths. On the one hand, they have to claim everything is financially rosy so shareholders are happy. That includes profit forecasts from downloads and other digital platforms. Problem is, when it comes to the strike, that’s the very area which they claim isn’t monetizable at all.

But while writers may be enjoying their public standing, IATSE topper Thomas Short is swiping away, claiming that a strike was always pre-set.

“It’s time to put egos aside and recognize how crucial it is to get everyone back to work, before there is irreversible damage from which this industry can never recover,” Short said in a letter to WGA West’s Patric Verrone.

The WGA trumpeted a pair of surveys Wednesday showing plenty of public sympathy with backing of 69% in a Pepperdine poll and 63% in a SurveyUSA poll, while the companies received a only a smattering of support with 4% and 8%, respectively.

And the announcement came on the same day that WGA West prexy Patric Verrone and SAG topper Alan Rosenberg huddled with multiple elected officials in Washington, D.C., to explain the guilds’ position.

“These polls prove that the public understands what’s at stake here,” Verrone said in a statement. “Our fight represents the fight for all American workers for a fair deal.”

The news release also included a strong endorsement of the WGA’s position by a labor economist at Pepperdine, which conducted the survey. “Public sentiment plus the economic disruption that the strike has caused can serve as powerful leverage and bodes well for writers in ongoing negotiations,” said David Smith.

As for talks, no new ones are scheduled. In what could be a positive development, AMPTP chief Nick Counter has dropped the condition that the guild has to stop the strike for a few days for negotiations to resume.

In response to Short’s letter, Verrone said: “Our fight should be your fight,” and noted that “for every four cents writers receive in theaterical residuals, directors receive four cents, actors receive 12 cents and the members of your union receive 20 cents in contributions to their health fund.”

The WGA’s repeatedly referred to four cents as the usual residual writers receive per DVD sale. On the last day of contract talks, guild negotiators took the DVD proposal — seeking to double that rate — off the table but were infuriated by what they saw as a lack of movement by the companies and have hinted since then that it might be back on the table. The WGA had no comment Wednesday about the status of its DVD proposal.

Lack of progress in getting both sides back to the table, has led to the expectation that the Directors Guild of America will launch its negotiations soon — during what would be the typical window for DGA talks of at least six months before the June 30 expiration.

But the situation’s so fluid that speculation’s ruling the day, such as an “interim strike” scenario in which the WGA would go back to work at some point in the next few months — and then go back on strike if talks don’t lead to a favorable deal.

Short shots

Short noted in his letter to Verrone that more than 50 TV series have been shut down by the strike.

“More will come,” he added. “Thousands are losing their jobs every day. The IATSE alone has over 50,000 members working in motion picture, television and broadcasting and tens of thousands more are losing jobs in related fields.”

The IATSE topper noted that he took issue late last year with Verrone over the WGA’s defense of its strategy in delaying contract talks with studios and nets until the summer.

“When I phoned you on Nov. 28, 2006, to ask you to reconsider the timing of negotiations, you refused,” Short said. “It now seems that you were intending that there be a strike no matter what you were offered, or what conditions the industry faced when your contract expired at the end of October.”

Short also took aim at recent comments by WGA West exec director David Young, in which the exec said he would not apologize for the strike’s economic impact.

“This is hardly the point of view of a responsible labor leader, someone dedicated to the preservation of an industry that has supported the economies of several major cities for decades,” he added.

SAG’s Rosenberg said Wednesday he decided to join Verrone in Washington D.C., because the Screen Actors Guild will be facing the same issues next year. The SAG contract expires June 30.

“It’s important to impress upon (Washington) that this isn’t about wealthy actors or writers getting richer,” Rosenberg added. “The average writer makes $60,000 a year, the average actor makes less. It’s a question of keeping our heads above water with residual payments.”

Verrone and Rosenberg met with Sen. Barbara Boxer (D-Calif.), Reps. Howard Berman (D-Calif.), Henry Waxman (D-Calif.), John Dingell (D-Mich.) and Edward Markey (D-Mass.). Dingell chairs the House Energy and Commerce Committee, and Markey is chairman of the Subcommittee on Telecommunications. At the FCC, they met with commissioners Michael Copps, Jonathan Adelstein and Robert McDowell.

Rosenberg and Verrone characterized the guilds as being at a disadvantage in trying to negotiate with seven multi-national conglomerates — noting that they all are supposedly competitors but negotiate together. “They’re picking off the unions one at a time,” Verrone said.

The WGA and supporters have also stayed on point during the past four months on the key issue of new media, in which bigwigs finding themselves infected with the mixed messaging bug.

On one hand CEOs of major media congloms are selling Wall Streeters on the fact that their digital offerings are growing like gangbusters and driving the bottom line. On the other hand, those same execs are holding out their hands and saying, a viable business model just doesn’t exist and profits just aren’t rolling in yet to give striking scribes what they want.

The problem is the congloms are stuck in the precarious position of angering shareholders: tell them that your company isn’t growing and the stock plummets. Let the strike continue for six months or more and you anger those same shareholders, because in reality, companies will be losing revenue, as a result.

WGA supporters have compiled effective videos combining bullish pro-digital statements by moguls with the assertion that writers aren’t getting anything.

So it’s no surprise that company toppers are standing in the shadows and declining to state their case to an increasingly angry mob of writers. They just don’t know what to say yet — unless it’s positive.

During the recent rounds of earnings reports, News Corp’s Rupert Murdoch touted Fox Interactive Media as a strong profit generator, earning nearly $200 million in the past quarter alone, an 80% increase over last year, thanks to MySpace, Photobucket and other online properties.

Across town, Bob Iger said parts of 160 million TV episodes have been viewed on ABC.com, while 33 million downloads of the alphabet web’s shows have been purchased on Apple’s iTunes store. He estimated that the Mouse House’s digital revenue will be about $750 million this year.

And NBC’s Jeff Zucker said that the peacock made just $15 million in a year selling video on iTunes.

Oddly, those same toppers aren’t pushing forward negative numbers to hold the WGA at bay — such as Forrester Research’s prediction that growth of the paid download market will drop to 100% versus 200% next year; or that the sale of movies online will drop by 56% in 2008, according to PricewaterhouseCoopers.

When negotiations collapsed on Nov. 4, the AMPTP had offered to start paying for streaming video with a promotional window and had agreed to give the WGA exclusive jurisdiction on made-for-the-Internet writing on derivative works.

Disney pickets

The WGA has continued to picket more than a dozen locations in Los Angeles and staged a protest outside the World of Disney store on Fifth Avenue in New York on Wednesday, drawing more than 400 supporters.

A large, inflatable, cigar-chomping pig stood at Fifth and 55th Street outside the World of Disney store. Barricades ran the length of the block between 55th and 56th when it became clear that the picketers would not be contained to the sidewalk.

“I’ve had a lot of pedestrians telling me, ‘Hey, good luck with this,'” said “Late Show With David Letterman” scribe Steve Young. “I don’t know if the approval of tourists is going to bring Les Moonves to his knees, but it makes us feel good.”

Meanwhile, breaking a lengthy studio silence, ABC Studios has become the first arm of any conglom to respond individually to allegations made during the strike that it contends are inaccurate.

A Writers Guild of America East leaflet passed out Wednesday in front of Manhattan’s World of Disney store quoted Disney’s Bob Iger, who has said that the conglom generates $1.5 billion in digital revenue annually. The scribes, the WGAE claimed, earn nothing from that.

An ABC Studios spokesperson, who said she was tired of reading “distortion of information” by writers in newspaper articles and blog posts without any response from the producers, drafted this statement:

“The WGA leadership is deliberately distorting the facts. As the WGA knows full well, more than half of Disney’s digital revenues are from sales of travel packages and the vast majority of the rest is from online advertising on sites like Disney.com and ESPN.com and through online merchandise sales. The WGA also knows its members have been paid residuals on entertainment content downloaded via iTunes. Deliberately misleading the public is not the best way to resolve this issue and get Hollywood back to work.”

In response, the WGAE didn’t disagree with Disney’s account of where the $1.5 billion comes from, but did point out that the congloms have so far not been willing to open the books and prove how much money has been generated specifically from TV/film downloads and streaming:

“We would better know the nature of Disney’s and ABC’s revenues from digital if they would more fully and transparently reveal them to us. For example, their statement does not mention that much of the online advertising on their websites accompanies streaming video of our members’ work in television and film for which they receive absolutely nothing. All we’re asking for is a fair, respectful, small share.”

Separately, a group of assistants is organizing a picket to support the WGA. Slated to take place Monday from 12-2 p.m. in front of the main gate of the Fox lot, organizers said the event is for below-the-line employees, “especially those who’ve lost their job due to the strike” to “show the media conglomerates that they need to take responsibility for their own decisions and not blame the writers for their layoffs.”

(Ben Fritz, Marc Graser, Dade Hayes, Michael Schneider, William Triplett and Josef Adalian contributed to this report.)

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