How does new media effect big media labor negotiations?
Once again, the entertainment industry is readying itself for another strike. This time around, it’s the Writers Guild of America threatening to walk out at the end of their contract, resulting in the studios stockpiling scripts in case of emergency. But with the explosion of new media, who is better situated to weather the storm, the writers or the studios? Who has more ore less leverage than before?
Each successive generation has had more entertainment options than the one prior. Just considering filmed media and ignoring other forms of entertainment, there has been a steady progression from studio film to broadcast television, cable television, videotape, independent film, DVD, reality television and now user-generated internet video… and those are only the major developments.
At first look, it would appear that the studios and networks have the most to lose from new media. After all, new forms of entertainment alway threaten to take away market share from those media that already exist. A trump card that the guilds have always maintained is that audiences will eventually clamor for something new. When audience demand hits a certain point, there is pressure on the studios to capitulate or alienate their viewers forever.
Developments such as the rise of indie film and reality television, however, have hurt the guilds more than the studios, by providing sources of content during work stopages. Low-budget indie films that are not covered by Writers Guild or Directors Guild contracts (and sometimes not even by a Screen Actors Guild contract) continue to be made regardless of big media labor unrest. Indie distributors and studio-based specialty divisions thus have a constant source of content to pick up for theatrical or DVD release. Meanwhile, reality television has been the great savior of the networks since it is currently not covered by guild agreements and thus can be produced by the nets even during protracted labor negotiations. It is such a thorn in the side of the Writers Guild that one of their major points of negotiation this time around is the organizing of reality shows, to have those editors and producers who craft reality shows named writers.
User-generated internet video could be a devastating blow to the guilds. Although YouTube is owned by Google, several other major user-generated content portals are owned by big media conglomerates (AOL is part of Time Warner, MySpace is owned by Fox, etc.), allowing the studios to carve themselves a piece of the very pie that threatens to cut into their primary business. More importantly, user-generated video is a constant source of new content for audiences, thus nullifying the guilds’ trump card. Although SAG doe have an internet contract and the guilds can argue for their share of repurposed studio and network content, user-generated video largely remains (and will continue to remain) an area the guilds have no chance to monetize and which the studios, at least to some degree, can. If the internet becomes the portal by which content-hungry consumers satiate their viewing needs, a prolonged strike could be far more damaging to the guilds than to their employers.
At bare minimum, audiences will no longer be the ones to suffer.