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The WGA Strike: Making Writers Visible (starring Ron Moore with a special guest appearance by Daily Show writers)
The WGA Writer’s Strike is now in its third week, so I thought I should finally get around to blogging a few thoughts. First off, I have to say, it’s fantastic to see the issue of online content finally being taken seriously – as more and more material hits the web, I completely agree that writers should be getting their (usually very small) cut. I find the claims by the media conglomerates that the web offers no solid business model disingenuous – and, as many writers have argued, a small percentage of nothing is still nothing: residuals only get paid if money gets made.
Also, for me the Writer’s Strike coincided with my final revisions on my Tyranny of Digital Distance paper which looks at the way online content and networked communication change the expectations and possibilities of media (especially television) distribution. The series that formed my case study was Battlestar Galactica (BSG) and so I was intrigued to see show-runner Ron Moore talking about BSG’s first webisodes (The Resistance from 2006) in relation to the strike. He noted that despite being put together by the same crew and cast as the regular episodes, the studio didn’t want to pay for this ‘promotional’ content, which wouldn’t involve paying anyone; Moore held out and got people paid, after some industrial action, but the studios still wanted to run the webisodes without credits and eventually did. From this, Moore came to one conclusion:
“If there’s not an agreement with the studios about the internet, that specifically says ‘This is covered material, you have to pay us a formula – whatever that formula turns out to be – for use of the material and how it’s all done,’ the studios will simply rape and pillage.”
One of the stumbling blocks in getting the studios to agree to share the profit from online content is the fact that writers are simply not the most visible people in the whole world, and thus lack bargaining power. Actors are, and film directors, but writers are rarely well known and that’s one of the things the strike has changed somewhat. Or rather, an increased visibility of writers is one of those things that happened leading up to the strike, in some corners, at least, and has worked in favour of the writers’ cause. Ron Moore, I think, is a great case study here: sure, he’s the show-runner for BSG as much as a writer, but across the last few years Moore has amplified the voice of the writer to BSG‘s fans and beyond. The episodic BSG commentary podcasts have occasionally featured actors from the show, but the podcasts have most frequently focused on discussions of the writing process and have even featured additional raw recordings of writers’ meetings. The fact that the podcasts are released synchronously with the episodes means that fans have often linked the writers perspectives with the show as much as the actors and CGI that make the visual experience. If nothing else, I would argue, Moore helped fans ‘hear’ the writers in an explicit way which highlighted the ongoing creative role of the writing team. Indeed, if Joss Whedon had been podcasting during the filming of Buffy, he’d probably have filled this role, and his DVD commentaries certainly talk about the writers and the process of writing, but the immediacy of Moore’s podcast are, I think, key to their success.
Ron Moore has also maintained a blog and, like the podcasts, this was hosted by SciFi.com and centrally branded. However, one of notable things about the strike has been that Moore wanted to blog outside of the corporate umbrella and has thus started writing at his own domain. On his second post he noted that when the much-anticipated Battlestar Galactica: Razor airs next week, the podcast commentary will be a little different: it’s a recordings of the writers’ room when the Razor story was broken. Again, the writers are in the spotlight. Now, wearing both his writer and show-runner hats, Moore has blogged about BSG’s uncertain future, a post sure to have the full sympathy of (albeit anxious) fans:
Production wrapped on episode 413 late last night, and there’s no certain date to resume shooting. No more scripts exist. My office staff has been laid off. My cast has been suspended, without pay.
I refuse to believe that we won’t finish, that we won’t be back to film our final stories, but I know and accept there is that possibility. The strike will be a seminal event for many of us in this business as it’s put literally everything we care about in the balance (if only for a short time so far) for something we all believe is important.
Writers talk a lot about the strike, about the reasons we’re out on the picket lines and our feelings and experiences in the business. It’s been an interesting three weeks. I’ve connected with more scribes in the last few weeks than in many months before and I come away from it to date with a sense of optimism about the solidarity of the membership and admiration for my peers.
Galactica’s coming back, I frakking promise you that. But I am ready to put the rest of the story on the table and take the risk that I’ll never be able to tell it, in support of this strike.
Like Adama says, you make your choices and then you live with them.
A helluva gamble.
It’s a gamble that fans might have been unprepared to accept in the past, but with the visibility of writers thanks to Moore, and thanks to the strike, it’s a gamble which fans will likely support. That said, I think the writer’s have probably gotten all of the sympathy that viewers are likely to give – things will get harder as the episodes already in the can run out and shows stop abruptly mid-season. Lets just hope that as talks between the WGA and the studios resume next week, a reasonable outcome can be reached.
Until then, for an accessible and convincing explanation of the WGA’s position, watch this ‘Why We Fight’ clip. However, if you prefer your news just a little funnier, then this clip from Daily Show writer Jason Rothman (with a characteristically odd cameo from John Oliver) in the style we’ve come to love, is for you:
Incidentally, I think this clip is brilliant, because Rothman does such a good job of showing how much of The Daily Show comes directly from the writers’ pens.