Why Seattleites Are Picketing in the Writers' Strike

Because they want to get back to writing your after-work specials.

Eyebrows might've been raised on Friday, Dec. 14, at Westlake Mall, as members of the striking Writers Guild of America were handing out leaflets to explain why Lost, The Daily Show With Jon Stewart, and Gossip Girl aren't airing new episodes. Don't all those fat cats live in Hollywood, typing out scripts on gold-plated keyboards? Not according to strike captain Robert Schenkkan, the Pulitzer-winning local playwright (The Kentucky Cycle) who also moonlights as a screenwriter (The Quiet American). He says Seattle has a small community of about 75 writers—currently on strike—who toil in television and film. Names you might recognize would be Alan Rudolph (The Moderns), George Wing (Outsourced, 50 First Dates), Chris McQuarrie (an Oscar winner for The Usual Suspects), and Sherman Alexie (no introduction needed). "Some people have homes up here but work in L.A," says Schenkkan. "I go down to L.A. about every six weeks." Schenkkan also claims, "The fan base of television shows is among our most vocal and supportive." Funny how a steady diet of American Idol will do that to you. At issue is whether a new contract would force producers to share a greater portion of the future digital pie. Just as the burgeoning DVD market was once undervalued (i.e., writers and actors missed the boat), everyone now wants a piece of anticipated digital media revenues. The WGA claims the value of downloading—not music, but TV shows and other scripted content—will be $1 billion over the next three years. It says the studio's current royalty offer to writers is $0.003 per download. This has implications for Seattle. For instance, if one of local television writer Sara Cooper's episodes of House is purchased for $2 on Amazon, then played on Microsoft Zune or a Windows-compatible iPod, those friendly local tech companies will presumably make more than one-third of a cent. And at present, says Cooper, "I've seen not a penny for anything downloaded." Lost and some other shows do share revenues, but such arrangements are case by case and studio by studio. As to uniform future rates, "We're asking for something like two-thirds of every penny." Then there's the matter of streaming: "I didn't even know they were streaming until I went to the Fox site," Cooper says of House. Unlike TV reruns with set royalty schedules, those episodes are essentially being used as promotional loss leaders to sell Internet ads (again with no share to writers), and to maintain interest in the shows on hiatus. Schenkkan and Cooper say we can expect more leafleting soon. In the meantime, Jeff Bezos and Bill Gates are probably going into Heroes withdrawal.

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