As usual, it is all about money. The strike action of the Writers Guild of America (WGA) and the Alliance of Motion Picture and Television Producers (Amptp) was inevitable. Content creators do not want to give up the potential revenue represented by the web (among other new media platforms) and distributors do not want to pay for something that has yet to prove a reliable revenue source. Writers are the advance guard on the content side of the money war, but they have strong support from their peers in the Screen Actors Guild (SAG) whose own Amptp contract comes up for renewal next June.
As Los Angeles' production community girds itself for a protracted labour dispute - writers are traditionally the fiercest negotiators and this round sees them looking resolute - and television and film sets go dark for lack of scripts, the question arises: will this strike be the impetus for a larger audience migration from old media to new'
The previous WGA strike action, in 1988, is credited with boosting the then nascent US cable industry into the television mainstream. Darkened networks led viewers to explore the outer reaches of the channel spectrum.
At first glance, the numbers suggest change is afoot. According to the US-based Consumer Internet Barometer, this year 16% of US households with internet access (an important qualification) watched an entire TV broadcast online, compared to 8% in 2006. But approximately half of those viewers were watching their favourite television shows - which takes us back to the strike.
Because the two sides have yet to negotiate terms, the web would seem to be neutral ground in this new battle. But that is not so. WGA, SAG, the Directors Guild of America (DGA): all the major guilds have new-media terms. Indeed, the WGA announced that independent web productions would not be affected by the strike. The issue that is dividing the two sides is the terms by which Amptp members (the distributors) can exploit traditional TV and film productions in new media.
While it is axiomatic that audiences demand new entertainment, the situation in 1988 is not comparable with today's. Cable channels were viewed on the same apparatus, the television. The computer is an entirely different machine, typically in another room; moreover, the viewing experience and, perhaps more important, the viewing expectations are entirely different.
Money is driving divisions
The supposition overlooks the principal issue: money. As much as viewers are said to drive programming, the gatekeepers are very much in charge. Broadcasters are unwilling to put their material on the web because they are concerned about tinkering with the multi-billion dollar television advertising industry. Cable and satellite companies do not want to undermine the primacy of the channels for which they charge so much. If customers can get anything they want through a website, why pay for 40 or 400 channels'
Then there are the advertisers. Risk-averse where their brands are concerned, corporations are hesitant about buying wholesale into the Wild West of the web. Sites that rely on user-generated content (UGC) are simply unpredictable.
Hence, it is not a question of whether the internet is ready to take over from television - for consumers with a large data pipe it is almost capable of doing so - but on the willingness of entrenched interests to strike out for new terrain.
Conversely, the same factors dividing the two factions - revenue and control - are driving the growth of web entertainment. The YouTube phenomenon is fed by the willingness of amateur content creators to provide material for free, paired with the willingness of audiences to tap into this ephemera. On top of this is the relatively low cost to the media giants, such as YouTube's owner Google Inc and MySpace's owner News Corp, of operating the means of delivery.
These reduced 'barriers to entry' - inexpensive recording and editing technology for amateur creators, web programming that is free for both the consumer and the distributor - are where old media and new media collide, and remain at loggerheads. This is why the WGA strike will not shift mainstream TV viewing en masse to web entertainment, as there is another hurdle. Sadly for the legions of eager but ungifted would-be entertainers of the world, the barrier to entry for talent remains fixed.
A vast Babel of inanity
The notion that any kid with a camera can become Steven Spielberg has been exposed as a sham. For the vast majority of those submitting user-generated material, that has never been the point but there are those with aspirations to make something like mainstream TV programmes. For them, it seems programmes such as The Office are proof that improvisation rules. One has only to point a camera at a posse of pretty young things and let them ad lib. The results so far are online for anyone to see - a vast Babel of inanity.
Will Ferrell's LaughOrDie.com, for example, features in-your-face skits that would fail to make the cut on Saturday Night Live. Prom Queen, a teen murder mystery produced by Michael Eisner's Vuguru, available on MySpace and via download, comes in 90-second clips that are gone before the viewer can register them. These are gold in comparison to Roommates, also on MySpace. If a sampling of its three-minute episodes is any indication, there is no writerly presence to be compensated. It is difficult to see how it could be translated into the kind of mainstream business that could win TV audiences.
There are initiatives trying to map the terra incognita of web entertainment. Talent agency UTA and ad agency Spot Runner have teamed up to create 60Frames Entertainment, a venture aiming to pair the agency's high-profile clients with leading content creators. Announced in the summer, 60Frames boasts Joel and Ethan Coen as creative advisers, but the site is unlikely to launch until January and will only feature comedy in the near future.
Admittedly, television is brimming with lame fare. But when television is good, it is very good. Few would argue that programming such as The Sopranos, The Wire, Six Feet Under or Californication has now taken the place of US independent cinema as the sphere of choice for pop intellectuals. Meanwhile, more conventional episodic productions such as Desperate Housewives, CSI: Miami and House each draw more than 15 million viewers per episode in the US.
The average US viewer watched more than eight hours of television a day in 2005, according to The Economist. One could browse the web for a similar length of time and find something to see. But when it comes to scripted production, genuinely engaging 'ready for prime-time' material, it is like looking for a needle in a haystack.
The single needle so far is Quarterlife, the web-based drama created by Ed Zwick and Marshall Herskovitz and fully financed through their Bedford Falls Co. Although conceived for TV, the programme was rethought as a pure web play. Each episode is packaged as six segments delivered in doses of seven to eight minutes - roughly the time between advertising slots on TV - to approximate a television hour.
The segments allow the viewer to connect with the characters, and the resulting experience - viewed on a 15-inch computer screen - is surprisingly similar to television. The production values are not as high, but they are a stratospheric improvement on other web programmes. But it is the writing and the acting that stand out.
A dearth of quality material
This is not to say money and a strong track record are prerequisites to create entertaining web material, but merely that such things cannot hurt. The strike would have to last months if not years before a significant quantity (eight hours a day!) of similar material could make its way into the web domain - all of it created by non-guild writers, of course.
Quarterlife made headlines when NBC struck a deal with Bedford Falls to broadcast the programme as television hours. The terms of the deal should give pause to the Amptp member companies: Bedford Falls owns the copyright. NBC has no say in the scripts or storylines.
The migration online is inevitable, but only because the concept of something being 'online' will become meaningless. All that is lacking is a good inexpensive product to link web URLs to widescreen TVs (so far, Apple TV is chained to the company's iTunes paid download service and free downloads from YouTube - it does not have a browser).
The bottom line is that the Amptp membership - that is, the old media conglomerates The Walt Disney Co, General Electric, News Corp, Sony, Time-Warner and Viacom - all stand to gain more by collaborating with creators than by fighting them. And the longer they hold out, the more they risk letting companies such as Google make inroads in their entertainment domain.
Perhaps the old joke will see a revision. Did you hear about the smart mogul who wanted to get ahead in Hollywood' He signed with the writers.
The Writers Guild of America and the Alliance of Motion Picture and Television Producers resumed talks on November 26, but at press time observers agreed the two sides are far from a settlement - if only because of the complexity of the royalty arrangements for which both sides are pushing. The accountants and lawyers will have a feeding frenzy as they attempt to extract a compromise from two competing agendas.
As many as 50 TV series and several films have been shut down by the strike, including Mira Nair's Warner Bros-backed Shantaram, set to star Johnny Depp, Oliver Stone's Vietnam drama Pinkville, and Ron Howard's The Da Vinci Code follow-up Angels & Demons. The Los Angeles Times cited industry estimates suggesting that if the strike lasts two more weeks (to mid-December), all prime-time series shot in the city will cease production, at a cost of $21m per day.