December 5, 2007

Writers’ strike and internet programming

More than 12,000 writers represented by the Writers Guild of America (WGA) went on strike Nov. 5 to demand more compensation for films and television programs released on DVD and/or aired online. Both markets have proven highly successful in recent years: Americans spent $2.8 billion on television show DVDs in 2004 while networks like NBC offer viewers a number of ways to watch programming over the Internet. At the same time, however, writers are currently being offered just $250 per year for each hour-long episode aired online.

The writers say this amount falls far short of how much online content is worth, and there is data to support this belief. A recent Pew Internet Project report on online video shows that a significant number of people watch programming online. Data from a Pew survey conducted in February and March of 2007 reveal that fully 30% of internet users age 18-29 and 16% of internet users age 30-49 report watching or downloading movies and TV shows from websites.

According to eMarketer, an online market research company, online content viewers are also opening their wallets to access television programming. The company predicts that Americans will spend more than $700 million this year alone on online and mobile television content, and it expects that number to grow to $2.6 billion by 2011. The networks also make revenue from online advertisements, which accompany the television programs airing on their websites.

Because internet trends are in constant flux and predictions regarding future viewing trends are uncertain, the networks and the WGA are having a difficult time assessing a monetary amount to online programs. However, the writers are in universal agreement that $250 per year is just too low a value for their content.

The real losers, at least in the short term, appear to be the viewers, who are already finding their favorite shows running out of new episodes. With just three new episodes left, House has gone into reruns until January. Viewers will see the last new episode of Desperate Housewives this week, while The Office and 24 are on an indefinite hiatus.

The last WGA strike, which spanned five months in 1988, had a significant impact on the industry, ending the life of some programs while giving birth to less-scripted shows like Cops. Many predict the current strike will have a similar effect of giving birth to an even larger number of reality shows.

And in a hint of where television programming may be heading, NBC recently picked up the MySpace-success Quarterlife, a show airing on the social networking site for the last month as short, 8-minute webisodes. NBC plans to begin airing the show as an hour-long drama early in 2008.

As we stand at this potentially pivotal moment of television’s future, one must wonder if we will continue to see the blurring of the lines between the two mediums as more viewers move into the online space. If the writers’ strike continues on long enough, we may have the answer sooner rather than later.