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Online work emerges as big issue in Hollywood

Unionized writers could end up striking over pay for digital shows.

September 26, 2007|Richard Verrier and Dawn C. Chmielewski | Times Staff Writers

A steamy new NBC soap opera, "Coastal Dreams," is coming soon to a small screen near you. But not the TV -- the PC.

And it's not alone. CBS has a mockumentary, "Clark and Michael," while ABC's "Voicemail" is a voyeuristic peek into the life of a twentysomething single guy.

The Web series reflect the networks' headlong drive to harness the Internet and lure a young, and increasingly elusive, audience. Yet the online rush has heightened tensions between the major studios and networks and the unionized actors and writers who fear being shortchanged by this new digital frontier.

To handle much of the Web work, networks are relying heavily on nonunion scribes and guild writers who are quietly working outside of union contracts. In some cases, networks and television studios have created separate nonunion companies to create original online entertainment on shoestring budgets.

They also have launched digital studios that serve as "farm teams" for new concepts on the Web that might one day get drafted for the major leagues of prime time.

The issue of how to compensate talent for work distributed online is central to contentious contract talks with writers -- and could trigger the first major strike in Hollywood in nearly two decades.

"The more it looks like television is migrating to the Internet, the more important it is for us to ensure that writers are covered under a writers guild contract," said Patric Verrone, president of the Writers Guild of America, West. "We certainly don't want to get left behind the way we were with cable television, reality TV and animation."

Network executives are loath to further inflame the issue by discussing it publicly. Privately, however, several studio and network executives said they were not trying to circumvent the unions but instead attempting to adapt to a changing landscape in which entertainment plays out on multiple screens.

Many likened their situation to being in a vise grip, squeezed on one side by advertisers and fans demanding more online entertainment while pressured on the other side by guild officials who insist that ground rules be established first.

"It's something that our viewers are demanding," said one television executive, who asked not to be identified because of the sensitivity of the negotiations. "We are doing a disservice to them by not providing it. We are going to provide it to them one way or the other."

Exacerbating tensions are the existing labor agreements, which are vague on wages and other forms of compensation for those writing for the Web.

The main agreement contains provisions that seem anachronistic in the Internet age, such as a stipulation that the length of promotional clips cannot exceed 4 minutes, 26 seconds, an arbitrary calculation rooted in older technology, namely the running time for 400 feet of film.

Caught up in the ambiguity are writers such as Richie Solomon.

The Burbank writer received three Emmy nominations in 2006 and 2007 for his work on "Stranger Adventures," an interactive online mystery series in which viewers find clues and compete for prizes. His work caught the attention of a major network that has considered developing a TV show based on characters he created.

If that happens, Solomon won't make a penny. His contract didn't provide for extra compensation beyond his online work.

"If it does get picked up, I basically would have created a network show for nothing," Solomon said. "There's a real potential for abuse."

Networks feel vulnerable as well. More than half of U.S. households have high-speed Internet access that enables them to watch video on YouTube, Yahoo and MySpace. An estimated 134 million Americans watched more than 9 billion online videos in July alone, according to ComScore Media Metrix, an online measurement firm.

That's raised the competitive bar for television programmers, who need to find new and more entertaining ways to keep twentysomethings and thirtysomethings tuned in.

"Everything has to be better, because now they have alternatives," said Jane Buckingham, president of Intelligence Group, a forecasting firm. "If the program's not good, they'll check out what's going on online. If that's not good, they'll go play a video game."

One executive described short-form online videos as "bite-sized appetizers" that help sustain a fan's interest when new episodes aren't airing.

"Those shows that have enough content online for the fan to interact with have a higher engagement factor," said Vivi Zigler, executive vice president of NBC Digital Entertainment.

In an effort to promote their prime-time shows in 2006, NBC made a major push to create Web episodes based on such shows as "The Office," "Heroes" and "Crossing Jordan."

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