Supporting digital culture means supporting the writers

You may not have been following the writers strike in Hollywood, but to listen to the media reports it’s simply an issue of having to watch re-runs for a while. This is radically undervaluing the issue – to me this is an issue that will determine the future of the digital culture.

Before we get to the bigger issues, let’s recap the current media coverage, which has mainly shown only one side of the story, as Howard Rodman points out.

The news stories–on radio and television stations owned by the same conglomerates against whom we negotiate–are filled with stories of limo drivers, caterers, florists, waiters, even agents, who might be laid off if the strike is at all protracted. What they don’t talk about so much are the writers, thousands of them, who are putting their houses and cars and families and kids and futures in jeopardy to fight for what they believe is right. And what the conglomerate-owned media talk about even less: that no one on this food chain, from high to low, would be eating without the intellectual property writers create.

John Robin Baitz also says something similar.

Newspapers and local stations also take in vast sums from movie and television ads, so there is a quiet and insistent hesitancy when it comes to being critical of the hand that feeds them. The studios have framed the debate, gotten ahead of it, and now we have many people commenting on HuffPo about the spoiled and over-paid mediocrities who write TV and movies. The fact that the future livelihood of thousands of families is at stake does not really come into the reporting. The actual income of the majority of writers in the business does not come into the reporting.

Perhaps it’s a sign of the times: it seems today that we tend to jump to the conclusion that unions are simply groups of greedy people, rather than the heroes that movies like Norma Rae made them out to be in the 1970s. But the reality is that the writers are looking for something incredibly reasonable:

But those residuals for things like television syndication are drying up, as syndication, re-runs and the like are replaced by DVDs. You don’t watch re-runs of The Sopranos on channel eleven: you watch them on boxed sets. But the residual rate on DVDs is a fraction of a fraction: point oh three percent.

As re-runs and syndication dry up, and a decent formula is replaced by an indecent one, our members stand to lose roughly 80% of their residual income–of what tides them over.

This is why we’re asking for four cents more for every DVD. And that’s why we’re asking that the DVD rate–calculated when cassettes were in their infancy, when DVDs were a gleam in no-one’s eyes, when the internet was still ARPANET and closed to commercial interests, when George Michael was in Wham!–not be the determinant of how we’re compensated for downloads in this brave new world.

This is radically different than the issues that the RIAA and MPAA are trying to address, which largely equates to trying to intimidate, legislate, and litigate their way out of actually doing the work of true innovation. The amount of money we’re talking about in this strike largely equates to the amount of a severance package for a single entertainment industry exec.

Writers are the starting points of entertainment content. If the new digital means of creating, sharing, distributing, and consuming entertainment content leaves them out in the cold, what incentive do they have to continue creating it?

Digital culture is driving more demand for great content, not less. If those of us who rail against the RIAA/MPAA for trying to stop the spread and consumption of content truly believe in the digital culture, and the need for changes in the marketplace, we must support the writers in their quest to rewrite their decades old payment agreements.

Anything else is just hypocritical.