Hollywood writers meet tonight in Beverly Hills to decide whether to authorize a strike that could idle tens of thousands in the entertainment industry. Most of the issues that divide the Writers Guild of America from the Alliance of Motion Picture and Television Producers are no different from those that have split unions and management from time immemorial: The writers want a larger piece of the pie, and they want more work to be done by union members.
There are a couple of elements, though, that are peculiar to the entertainment industry and its struggle to adapt to the Internet. Because the value of a TV show or movie is unusually hard to predict before it hits the market, writers (like actors and directors) receive only part of their compensation when they submit their work. That initial payment covers just the first use of the script, such as the initial run of a TV show. If the show is successful enough to go into syndication or be released on DVD, the writer receives a residual -- a percentage of revenue from those sales.
But what if the network that buys the show makes it available for free online after it airs on TV? Producers don't want to pay the writers extra for that, even if the webcast is generating advertising dollars for the network. After all, they say, the Net is just being used to help build an audience for the TV broadcasts. Producers also want to limit what writers receive for Internet-only programming, saying profits are uncertain. Writers, on the other hand, want a share of any revenue that their scripts generate away from the TV set.