Surrendering America

How much do you want to surrender America to the corporations?

Think about this carefully. This writers strike affects you. Wherever you are, whatever you do, this is going to affect you. 

You may say, "But I’m not a writer," or "I don’t watch TV, films," or "I barely use the Internet." Doesn’t matter. In fact, the corporations are pretty much counting on you not realizing this is about you. (I hope you read Alex’s post yesterday explaining it and Guyot’s comment in the response section, because they nailed the cause and cost.)

Now some of you are thinking, "Wait a minute. How big a deal could this actually be? It’s not on the news, no one’s jumping all over this nationally, and if it was really going to affect Americans, someone would have noticed, right?"

12 thousand+ people are on strike. Friday, nearly 4000 people showed up for the WGAw (Writers Guild of America, West) rally in Century City. 4000. Many thousand crew members are going to lose their jobs, and yet, many of them support the WGA’s position. Teamsters are not crossing the picket lines. SAG (Screen Actors Guild) is 100% in support of the WGA.

You know what the lead story on MSNBC was Friday night (owned, I believe, by GE)? That Brittney Spears’ attorney–who was the same attorney for that wacky dead Anna Nicole Smith–had had to sue Anna Nicole’s estate because he hadn’t been paid for hours he’d worked for that estate. The only thing they didn’t bother to begin that little piece of vital information with was, "Dear America, here’s how stupid we think you are: this is what you want to know about."

They (MSN) eventually mentioned the stirke when they announced Schwarzenegger’s comments, (the whole coverage by NIkki Finke has been stellar–page down below first comic), which lumped all writers into the millionaire status, as if they were dilettantes who were simply out to hurt anyone who didn’t give them what they wanted. It’s the position the corporations would love America to take: that if those bratty writers would just quit being so selfish, all of this would be over and people wouldn’t have to be hurt. The average guild writer earns in the vicinity of $61K a year. Average, meaning, statistically, half of them earn below that. But wait–do the math–the bigger salaries of the few top writers/showrunners are averaged into that figure as well, and so that means that a much larger percentage of the actual guild members earn far far below that figure. Many of them have second jobs to try to pay the bills. Do you realize how many people have to make below poverty level in order to get an average of $61K when the few bigger writers’ salaries are included? These writers are not dilettantes. They are struggling to survive, to keep their bills paid.

How is it that 4000 people can rally for two hours with helicopters flying overhead (as seen in Stee’s video) and it’s not a major headline on every channel? We know that Lindsay Lohan is out of rehab. We know the latest thing Brittney is doing or not wearing. This strike is going to cost hundreds of millions of dollars, it’s going to affect the economy. If thousands of people are out of work in one of the major US cities, the domino effect is going to start: the mortgage woes that are already bad? Going to get worse. More bankruptcies, more lenders losing money, more ripple effects outward. This will hit Wall Street, which will in turn touch the rest of the economy. And yet, this is not being discussed on your nightly news.

According to Nikki Finke, the strike barely rated a 655 word report in the L.A. Times business section. 655 words. 12,000 people on strike in the industry that spends millions of dollars every single day in that particular state, mostly in the L.A. Times area and they buried the story in the business section? I don’t know about you, but I’m not really sensing the bravery there. If they’re quashing a story this big, right here in America, what do you think they’re hiding elsewhere?

The corporations own the news stations. The corporations are anti-guild, and would like to break the guilds. Think I’m exaggerating? (I’ll get to why that matters to you.) The corporations had months to negotiate with the writers guild, and they refused to budge one single iota. As Alex and others commented yesterday, they were actually asking for rollbacks, big honking cuts in what the writers currently get. Now, maybe you’d think, "Oh, well they’re asking for that because they’re hurting, not making any money. The economy is kinda scary right now." At the same time they were asking for rollbacks, here are two of the current headlines / facts, which they confirmed or reported:

"Viacom’s Profits Shoots Up 80%"

and

[Disney’s Bob Iger] boasts about "another year of outstanding financial results. We posted record net income and record earnings per share for our 2007 fiscal year, bolstered by a strong 4th quarter performance. These results stem directly from our emphasis on the creation of high-quality content across all of our businesses, backed up by a clear strategy for maximizing the value of that content across platforms and markets."

That’s an 8 with a 0 on it up there. Eighty percent. Does anyone out there actually believe that one of the reasons for the uptick in profits has nothing to do with distributing content over the Internet? (If so, seriously, nice rock you’ve been living under. Love what you did with the curtains.)

The AMPTP, the corporations, actually claimed that no one knows what’s going to happen with "this Internet thing"–that it was "too new" to be able to predict how the income would work or even if it would work. I’m kinda impressed with that stunning ability to be that creative, actually, in the face of blatant profits. Jon Robin Baitz (a showrunner for the TV series, Brothers & Sisters) wrote in his open letter to Schwarzenegger that:

The deeply insupportable position they have taken in adopting a blanket refusal to address the economics of new media with us is laughable. Even as they insist to their stockholders that this revenue stream is the hope and reality of their future. To insist on two entirely contradictory positions is either morally bankrupt, or simply profoundly amateurish.

Because they claimed they could not know if there was ever going to be a profit from the Internet… (Okay, an aside… they don’t know? Really? That whole iTunes thing just flew right by them? This Google thing, and YouTube thing, a complete mystery?)… anyway, since they don’t "know" if this whole "distribute stuff on the Internet" platform could be profitable, the corporations want to give, literally, ZERO, to the people who create the content which gets distributed on the Internet. So the writers said, "If you don’t make money, fine, we don’t make money. All we’re asking for is a percentage, not a flat fee per show. Just a percentage. And a teeny tiny one at that." The corporations said no.

The reason they did that? It’s not just about the internet downloads of today. They’re looking to what’s about to happen. Everything is going to be on the Internet soon. Your computer and TV will likely merge into one unit within the next five years. It already has merged for many of the twenty-something generation: they are only bringing their laptops to campus and downloading TV through their cable connections. If the corporations don’t have to pay anyone for Internet downloads, they make 100% profit.

They will make billions in advertising. With no cost of delivery, because the customer pays for the cable bill. No DVDs to cut and distribute. Huge profit margin, because it can play on infinite "channels" any time a customer clicks on the site. The normal residuals paid to a writer now for re-runs on TV? Will disappear. The re-runs will soon be able to fall under the "Internet promotion" description if the corporations have their way. Isn’t that a neat trick? Pay the writers tiny minimums initially, force them to accept zero dollars for the Internet by waiting them out in this strike (while firing the crews, laying off staff), and then when the writers are starving and losing their houses, they’ll have to accept zero compensation just to have a contract. By the time they have recovered, assuming they do, all delivery of content will be through the Internet and no one will have to pay those pesky TV residuals–so they’ll get everything even cheaper.

The corporations walked away from the negotiating table, and Nick Counter, their chief negotiator, has stated emphatically that they will not return to the negotiating table unless the strike is called off. They absolutely would not negotiate before the strike was called. Why on earth would anyone delude themselves that they would give anything if everyone went back to work? They wouldn’t need to: they would have immediately won. They want to break the guild, and to do so, they forced the strike.

The corporations walked away. They won’t come back. They know it’s going to hurt a lot of people. But they are the plantation owners of today, asking the writers to take very small minimums for the show (barely living expenses) and make nothing later while they make a fortune. They’re protected by their wealth. The corporations have billions of dollars and plenty of insurance and except for those pesky stockholders, they are pretty much beholden to no one. Many people suspect they have every intention of waiting it out. In fact, not only will they use force majeure to cancel contracts without penalty, a lot of industry people assert they wanted the strike in order to use the clause. (Why do you think they came to the table on that last day, promised to negotiate if the writers gave up the DVD raise request and, when the writers did give that up… the corporations did not give back anything? Nothing. They got what they asked for (drop the 4 cent DVD raise request). Instead, they waited ’til the strike deadline and then walked away. They did it so that they could use force majeure: the clause that allows them to cancel contracts if there is an ‘unexpected’ work stoppage. If they appeared to be trying to prevent this stoppage [i.e., coming to the table to supposedly negotiate], they could look horrified when the strike went ahead and they then had legal justification to use the force majeure clause.)

So how does this affect you?

Aside from the ripple effect on the economy, and that’s going to be big, and aside from the fact that culture will forever change if we lose the really good writers in TV and film and are subjected to more and more corporate excuses for advertising, or Advertainment, every corporation in America is watching to see if the unions will cave. Where the writers go, the country will follow. Health care, pensions–unions will have a harder and harder time holding onto them if this big union falls. (I’m not working for a corporation, you say. I don’t benefit. If the corporations keep growing unchecked and without having to have any responsibility to the individual, then you’ll be affected. What you buy, what you eat, your health-care options–will all change.)

Now someone out there is naively going to utter the "free enterprise" argument. And I’ll say this: it’ll be free all right. When the corporations don’t have to pay the creators to use the content, the creators will have no control over their content. When the corporations have control of all information delivery–and they’re demonstrating their muscle now–how far away is it that they snap up all of the delivery systems of the Internet? How soon before censorship and control is exerted, because they have the content? If they control the content, they control the country. Period. And you, my friend, will be irrelevant. You, your children, our grandchildren.

So how much do you want to surrender America?

The only way the corporations are going to come back to the table early–in time to keep millions of people from being harmed–is if they feel the kick in their shins, in their profits. Stop watching TV online. Write to an advertiser (surely there is something you bought that you saw on TV), write to a corporation, sign a petition, write to a NEWS ENTITY and ask them why aren’t they covering it?

Your country is changing, right in front of your eyes. This is a chance to do something about it.

Do you care?

22 thoughts on “Surrendering America

  1. J.D. Rhoades

    Great post, Toni. The megacorps know they can’t win this argument on the merits, so they need to suppress information about the real issues from getting out. Which is why the Internet and posts like yours are so vital. Oh, the irony…

    Reply
  2. a Paperback Writer

    You know, my sympathies have been with the writers — whose story I have been seeing on the news every single day for a couple of weeks, even before the strike started — until you talked about their salaries.The AVERAGE is 61K? That sounds pretty dang good to me.Sure, I think they ought to get a slice out of the internet pie. But the AVERAGE is 61K?Holy crap. The average teacher in Utah makes half of that. In fact, the only way a teacher in Utah can earn $61,000 a year (without working more than one job) is two have either 2 master’s degrees or a PhD AND have worked 20+ years in the same school district.Okay, yes, I hope the writers win out — really. But don’t tell me about the poverty line. I have a friend– an excellent teacher — who is a single parent with 2 dependent kids, 20 years of experience teaching with taking an extra class and coaching teams to earn a few extra hours. Her family qualifies for the federal free lunch program because they are below the poverty line.My point is: LOTS of talented and hard-working people live below the poverty line.

    Now, the whole who’s controling this country anyway argument is a MUCH more gripping one.

    Reply
  3. Alexandra Sokoloff

    Paperback, I couldn’t agree more that teachers are criminally underpaid in this country.

    But let me correct this. There is absolutely NO WAY that 12,000 members of the WGA have an average salary of $61 k a year.

    I don’t know where G’s figures came from but his stats are much more on the – uh – money:

    Of the approx. 12,000 guild members, less than 300 of them make seven figures a year.

    Less than 2,000 of them make 200,000 a year.

    Nearly 6,000 of them are unemployed each year.

    I’ll repeat that:

    Nearly 6000 unemployed each year. And those $61,000 years – and the $200.000 years, often have to be spread out to cover a couple of uneployed years at a time. During which you’re writing just as much, but not being paid.

    And all that aside – the real point is – we are striking to be paid a tiny share of the profits from the content we CREATE.

    Do you think for some reason the corporations deserve to have ALL of the profit, and the creators none?

    Zero?

    Reply
  4. d.a.davenport

    I’m always for the striking workers. Comes from a father being Union almost all his working life. So I can put up with renting videos and watching reruns until the writers win.

    As for Governor Arnie, will someone tell him to pull his head out of his toches? The man can barely articulate and he’s slamming the very people who struggled through the fires of hell to come up with the decent dialog that he barely had a snowball’s chance of handling in his films!! Never liked the idiot, never will.

    I agree about the shameful wages teachers, police and fire-fighters have to contend with. My son worked with Blockbusters while in college and became a manager for awhile because their salary was pretty good while he searched for something better. They make $5,000 to $7,000 more a year than a beginning teacher in the Denver area!!!! Ridiculous.

    Reply
  5. Elaine Flinn

    To repeat what I just posted (late as usual) on Alex’s day – it’s already started in the book biz. HarperCollins (my former publisher) knocked down the royalty percentage for E-books. Take it or don’t get included.

    Reply
  6. Rae

    Paddy Chayefsky nailed it it 1976, when the brilliant Ned Beatty faced off with the transcendant Peter Finch to explain the way of the world to him. I find myself wondering if “Network” could get made today…….

    Here’s hoping the forces of good win one, for a change……

    (I’ve appended a pretty good-sized chunk of dialog here, because it’s so perfect.)

    *********************

    JENSENWe no longer live in a world of nationsand ideologies, Mr. Beale. Theworld is a college of corporations,inexorably determined by theimmutable by-laws of business. Theworld is a business, Mr. Beale! Ithas been since man crawled out ofthe slime, and our children, Mr.Beale, will live to see that perfectworld in which there is no war andfamine, oppression and brutality –one vast and ecumenical holdingcompany, for whom all men will workto serve a common profit, in whichall men will hold a share of stock,all necessities provided, allanxieties tranquilized, all boredomamused. And I have chosen you topreach this evangel, Mr. Beale.

    HOWARD(humble whisper)Why me?

    JENSENBecause you’re on television, dummy.Sixty million people watch youevery night of the week, Mondaythrough Friday.

    HOWARDI have seen the face of God!

    JENSENYou just might be right, Mr. Beale.

    Reply
  7. Louise Ure

    Rae, I’ve got to go watch Network again now.

    And Toni, funny corollary to your comment about the lack of news coverage. You know what I’m seeing more coverage of this week? The stagehands’ strike on Broadway.

    Reply
  8. Diane Patterson

    Excellent article, Toni. The lack of news reporting on this issue speaks so many volumes. They do not want the consumers to understand.

    I loved Jeff Zucker (head of NBC Universal) talking about why NBC pulled out of iTunes: “Apple sold millions of dollars worth of hardware off the back of our content and made a lot of money.” Yeah, and NBC made millions off those downloads — and the writers didn’t make a dime. Those millions, Jeff, are the reasons why you took your toys to go open hulu.com. If it were just “promotional,” you wouldn’t freakin’ care how much you were making. But you’re opening an ENTIRE WEBFRONT to sell your stuff.

    The other good one recently was Michael Eisner, who said the writers should be off picketing Steve Jobs, because Apple’s making all the money off of Internet downloads. Uh, Michael? The reason the writers aren’t making any damn money off those downloads is because the Big Kahunas said they shouldn’t ’cause it was just “promotional.”

    And I’d call this irony, but it clearly isn’t: Michael Eisner’s current project is Vuguru, a studio that will produce and distribute videos for the internet, cellphones and portable media devices.

    Follow the money.

    Reply
  9. M.J. Mclean

    An otherwise fine post was marred by the lack of a little basic fact-checking and a reliance on a Nikki Finke post that’s just not true. Ms. Finke has long hated the LA Times and wastes no opportunity, real or otherwise, to lob grenades of misinformation. The post linked to here was her complaint that the Times failed to cover a protest. Well guess what? The protest was covered by TV stations and blog and events like it very rarely yield any news anyway. What the Times has done instead is publish dozens of stories examining the issues and the ramifications. If you actually read the Times you’d know this. If you logged on to the paper’s home page, you’d find a prominent link to the coverage [http://www.latimes.com/entertainment/news/business/la-fi-writersguild-sg,0,7341750.storygallery?coll=la-home-entertainment] that offers a wide view of what’s going on. The paper has profiled a number of people who are suffering because of the strike and has offered space to bloggers who wish to offer direct accounts of what’s happening. The mainstream media offer a lot of reasons to complain these days, but before you launch a broad attack, do a little of what you accuse them of neglecting: basic reporting.

    Reply
  10. guyot

    I think the spirit of this post is right on. However, it is true that Nikki will “alter” the realities of certain situations to support her personal agendas.

    Yes, she hates the LA Slimes, and she is incorrect about their coverage. It’s not great, but it’s better than what she portrays.

    Where Nikki is accurate is how the Trades are so slanted toward management’s side.

    Reply
  11. spyscribbler

    I can only see through the lens of my life, but it’s been my experience that when you’re in an “artsy” career or “athletic” career, people think you should be grateful you get to “play” all day, and that money shouldn’t be an issue.

    Reply
  12. pari

    Great post, Toni.

    Thank you for some cogent arguments that I’ll definitely use in the coming weeks when I encounter people who don’t get it.

    I’m off to read Alex’s post now.

    Reply
  13. Tamar Bihari

    Awesome, Toni. You sum up a lot of my own thoughts and fears. The WGA has to stay strong on this. It’s freaking me out that nobody (ie: the mogul contingent) seems to be making any steps toward the negotiating table.

    To the commenter who scoffs at the 61K figure — keep in mind that, just as Toni said, TV showrunner and big name screenwriter salaries are included in that average. (A distinct minority, but an extremely well-paid one.) The median would be much, much lower and far more representative of the real paychecks the vast majority of screenwriters bring in.

    Also, nearly all writers who work in film and TV live in the LA and NY areas. Not exactly as cheap as Nebraska or South Carolina, y’know? When we sold our small bungalow in West Hollywood, a friend said we could invest the earnings in three or four apartment buildings in Boise. In LA, though, it couldn’t buy more than a shack. The difference in cost of living between the two cities is that great. So $61K, while not exactly poverty line, is also not living high on the hog. Unlike, say, the studio execs enjoying profits based on the creative output of the writers they’re now trying to shaft.

    One more thing: I recently learned what the teachers make in my NJ town. Once they have some seniority, they earn more than that $61K/year. And they have some job security, to boot. Nobody’s going to cancel their classroom.

    (BTW, my own family’s livelihood is endangered by this strike. My husband is a film/TV editor. But I wholeheartedly support the writers. As does he. We believe in the justice of their fight, and also, just as Toni says, we need the WGA to lead the way in order to maintain our own union’s strength.)

    Reply
  14. toni mcgee causey

    Thanks, everyone. I’d been gone all day (irony: on a film shoot).

    I definitely should have checked Finke’s figures–I’ll admit to rushing that one and took her word for it. Dumb mistake and I should know better (used to be in journalism).

    The averages Alex mentioned are scary low–there’s just no way so many of those writers could make it; no wonder they’re willing to suffer through the strike.

    I’m going to come back later to respond to specifics, but wanted to thank everyone for reading and commenting.

    Reply
  15. J.D. Rhoades

    We can argue over exact figures and the L.A. Times.

    But I have to tell you, I’m about as big a new junkie as you’ll find. I watch news and click Internet news sites all the livelong day. And this is what I’ve seen today about the strike: Nothing on CBS. Nothing on CNN. Nothing on Washington Post. A brief article on the NYT about how it probably doesn’t matter because the big guns like Wil Smith have already gobbled up all the money (which has nothing to do with Internet residuals). Nothing in the AP top stories.

    Anyone see anything on the other networks’ news on this? Anyone? Anyone?

    Reply
  16. Kent

    Fox shows it. I have seen it several times on Fox. So, if you hated Fox, I guess now you have to wonder about your position.

    Reply
  17. max

    Excellent post, Toni. I am also so glad you bring up the demanded roll backs. That is something people keep missing. The issue is not just that studios and networks refuse to pay any royalty on clearly solid internet revenue — which is a huge issue but not the only one — it is also that studios and networks are demanding writers take cuts in healthcare, royalties, and pay on what is already contractually established minimum pay.

    Reply
  18. OpenChannel

    Great post! I can’t believe the lack of press in the U.S. We’re pulling for you here in Canada. As a Canadian screenwriter, this definitely affects me (and my writing peers), as it will set a precedent for the future for all of us.

    And Vancouver has been strongly affected, as we are a major service industry to U.S. film and TV. It was front page news up here because every major TV show is shutting down (Battlestar Galactica, Bionic Woman, Supernatural, etc) and thousands have lost their jobs.

    You go!

    Reply

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