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Striking writers win

11 February 2008

In News Review of 5 November we noted the beginning of the Writers' Guild strike in the US. Since then there have been occasional stories in the media about tv companies being forced to put out a diet of reruns and American audiences deserting their tv screens. The writers have stood firm through what must have been a very difficult time, and they are just about to settle after achieving their objectives.

Two deadlines are looming which have forced the tv companies and studios to come to terms. February 15th is seen as the deadline for new material to be produced for the 2008-9 television season. On a longer timescale, the Screen Actors Guild contract expires in the summer of 2008 and studios must have been keen to settle this dispute well before that negotiation, as the actors could really stop the entertainment business in its tracks.

So what was the dispute about and what has been gained? The writers were concerned about DVD residuals and, even more importantly, about the huge potential for new media, using such techniques as streaming. The tentative agreement became possible when it was agreed that writers would be paid a fixed residual amounting to about $1,300 (£668) for the right to stream a television program online. In the third year of their contract, they will achieve one of their major goals: payments amounting to 2% of the distributor's revenue from such streams.

Writers will be paid a percentage of the distributor's revenue rather than the flat fee for web-streamed television shows granted to the directors. The writers had insisted on this to ensure that they did not lose out on any new-media windfall the studios and networks may get from web video in the future.

So what has been the effect of the strike? Its financial impact on writers, who have been on strike since early November, has been considerable. The strike is generally reckoned to have cost about $1 billion (nearly £514 million), with a particularly devastating effect on Los Angeles, the home of the American entertainment industry. As for the long-term effects, writers will now get a share in the income from dvd and new media.

In a Gallup poll conducted six weeks into the strike 60% of Americans sided with the writers. TV viewers may not all return to their screens, as the aftermath of the 1988 strike was that around 10% of tv audiences were permanently lost, and there are more alternatives to tv now. But the writers have fought their corner and established their importance to the entertainment industry, as well as their key role as content-originators who must be paid for their contribution.