(This post was written for the MIT PressLog.)
The writerâ€™s guild has complained for years that theyâ€™ve been unfairly shut out of profits from digital versions of the TV shows and movies they helped create; as networks and studios continue to expand the web presence of their programs, providing â€œwebisodesâ€ and character blogs and background stories for their on-screen content, they have further enlisted writers to produce material theyâ€™re not being adequately compensated for. Perhaps the current strike will help rectify this inequity.
But are screenwriters inadvertently helping to shift the new media landscape â€“ just as they get their extra slice for their â€œwebisodes,â€ are they digging out the ground beneath their entire venture? In 1988, the last writerâ€™s strike, grinding the prime time television season to a halt was a powerful move: we were still in a world of four channels and â€œmust-see TVâ€. The absence of new programming was disruptive enough to audiences and advertisers that the networks and production companies felt compelled to enter negotiations. Today, the scope of that media universe has changed. What are viewers doing without their new episodes of House or The Office? They may be catching up on series they hadnâ€™t gotten to, finally exploring Friday Night Lights or Mad Men or Weeds, either through on-demand services, iTunes, the network websites, Netflix, or even illicit peer-to-peer networks. The networks may actually cash in on the opportunity, if theyâ€™re smart: â€œnever got around to Aliens in America? Want to see what critics are talking about? Weâ€™ll start at season one, let you come in from the beginning, starting Monday!â€ An array of other options loom: video games, social networking sites, blogs.
And what if viewers (and advertisers with them) find themselves gravitating to that massive â€œchannelâ€ of content produced by non-unionized writers, i.e. the rest of us: YouTube? Will some ascerbic amateur writer, especially as we head into the heart of the presidential season, become the YouTube stand-in for the political humor of The Daily Show, Colbert Report, and SNL? Will dramatic shorts or amateur sitcoms, produced by aspiring writers or just those bored college kids, finally become a viable entertainment form, filling the current vacuum on TV? It would be ironic indeed, though not unprecedented in the history of media, for this squabble over one version of the digital media future to end up giving a boost to a different digital media platform, a tectonic shift in viewer preferences and cultural legitimacy that would be difficult to undo.