Program quality suffers when TV writers are alienated

For fans of The Office, the biggest story of the next two months might not be whether Jim and Pam stay together, but whether the story’s conclusion will even be shown. Because unless the Alliance of Motion Picture and Television Producers compromises to end the Writers Guild of America’s (WGA) strike soon, the concept of prime time story lines chronicled over an entire season of episodes might become obsolete.

Since Monday morning, screenwriters from Hollywood to New York have been on strike after months of fruitless negotiations over the issue of residual payments for so-called new media. In the case of a standard television program, screenwriters for each episode are typically paid residually as the show airs throughout the season instead of immediately after they submit their scripts. Producers thereby pay writers based on how well their shows perform, giving writers a strong incentive to write popular scripts and allowing producers to virtually avoid all of the risk in experimenting with innovative ideas and plots.

But as television viewership has declined with rapidly growing competition for younger audiences from new media — the Internet, video streaming, cable and DVDs — broadcast television networks have responded by adopting new media themselves, cashing in without sharing this revenue with writers. Some networks, for example, now sell reruns of popular prime time shows through iTunes or show them on their Web sites without paying the shows’ screenwriters.

The networks have justified this behavior by arguing that the profitability of online programming is not secure enough to merit residual payments. Their point is that networks have only been able to finance online broadcasts of television programs through advertisements but many viewers simply bypass the ads by watching shows illicitly using BitTorrent or YouTube. In other words, despite public promotions that television on the Internet will soon take off, the networks have no idea whether or when advertising online will become profitable. From the networks’ perspective, until they find a sound business plan or formula to profitably distribute shows online, Internet broadcasts are primarily an inducement for viewers who missed an episode to catch up on the story line and comfortably watch the next episode on television.

This idea of catching up on a program, however, is exactly why television producers need to buckle down and accept the WGA’s terms. Ever since the huge successes of “24” and “Scrubs” in 2001, most new prime time shows, even sitcoms, have been built around novel-like detailed stories rather than autonomous episodes. With the exception of some reality shows, almost all of the most popular programs on television have become pseudo-soap operas in this respect. Unlike 1990s-era programs like “Friends” or “Seinfeld,” knowing what happened in the previous week’s episode of a prime time show has become essential information for the viewer. The story lines from some shows like “Heroes” or “Lost” are so complex that they even begin each episode with a two-minute synopsis of the past several weeks so that viewers are not completely clueless of what they are about to see. In other words, the better writing of more complex and interesting story arcs have turned television shows into compelling narratives, addicting viewers and requiring them to stay up to date.

It isn’t a coincidence that the proliferation of these complicated story lines has occurred alongside the growth of new media. It can be difficult to keep up with a story arc in the same time slot on television every single week. Internet distribution allows viewers to catch up if they miss a broadcast or simply to watch episodes when it is convenient for them. Similarly, DVD rentals through Netflix empower consumers to watch consecutive episodes for entire seasons, freeing them from the perceived tyranny of the network schedule. There is a reason why NBC broadcasts online reruns of “30 Rock” but not “Sunday Night Football”: after a team loses or a contestant wins on a game show, all but the most dedicated fans would settle for a recap.

Modern television story lines have been the driving factor in the growth of online and DVD distribution, just as new media has allowed writers to increase the complexity of their shows. So when producers worry that having to pay residuals will lock them on a new-media roller coaster that could go up or down, they seem not to realize that the writers are the coaster’s engine.

Creative, motivated writers are essential for video streaming to produce new profits and new audiences. So long as writers are alienated from new media distribution, however, they will have little incentive to continue writing compelling narratives that last for entire seasons. The last WGA strike in 1988 lasted five months, delaying the fall prime time lineup, but the networks cannot afford to wait that long anymore. Indeed, the pace of change is much faster now, and by refusing to make simple concessions to pay writers for online broadcasts, the networks may be accelerating their own obsolescence.

Niko Bowie is a junior in Timothy Dwight. His column runs on alternate Fridays.

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