By Stephanie Ciccarelli
November 11, 2007
So far, you've really only heard unbiased reporting or relative support for the writers strike.
What I am privileged to share with you today, however, is a bird of a different feather, and potentially writing that may have severe consequences for the writer, and if not heeded, members of several unions in the United States, and by default, unions sympathetic to the cause in nations abroad.
One man, a member of SAG and AFTRA has taken a stand against the strike, and the following revelation, uncensored, is how he feels.
Because I happen to know a thing or two about how to make money on the Internet, and I'm concerned that if I speak my mind and voice an unpopular position, I will suffer at the hands of my fellow performers.
Ironically, I'm writing this from my hotel room in Las Vegas, having just spoken at BlogWorld on the need for podcasters to hone their craft and find their natural voices - to be more professional at what they do.
I've made my living as a talk show host and talking head for years, taking positions that, to me, make eminent sense, yet to others seem counterintuitive. And I've also figured out ways to make several millions of dollars on the Internet over the last 15 years or so, affording me a unique perspective on what works, what doesn't and why (thanks, Howard Fine!) - along with what will work in the future.
So, here goes.
I'm saddened and angered that the WGA has gone on strike.
I think the WGA strike, and the approach to these contract negotiations, have been the wrong way to fight the wrong battle.
I think they've squandered any goodwill they had in this negotiation by picking the wrong area over which to have a fight. And the danger goes far deeper than that, as my other unions echo WGA's chants.
Let me explain.
I'm always amazed that anyone is willing to pay me, other actors, writers and other performers to be in webisodics - and I'm on a fair number of well-known and well-respected webisodic series myself. Please watch Goodnight Burbank and Infected on Revision3. Save the ones artificially monetized as a blatant corporate sales tool (I'm happily in Pepsi/Mountain Dew's Cyberpunx, taking SAG-level pay), none is making any money.
Few are spending money - actors are working for free, green screen rooms are begged, borrowed or stolen, cameras and cinematographers are being cajoled into supporting their fellow performer, but very few dollars are being spent. Most of the breakdowns we see for these shows are copy, credit and meals.
The rare payments to performers in this space are welcome and cherished.
You know I'm right. You've seen Actor's Access, Now Casting and LA Casting.
It's all a big experiment, with relatively few real production dollars at risk and none coming back in return. People are dabbling. And spending very little producing to receive absolutely nothing in income.
If you're producing content for the Internet, for YouTube and that ilk, if you're aggressive, you can count on a few dollars in subscription fees (I own ShowTaxi.com, so I see the numbers) and even less in advertising dollars.
We're talking pennies here. And not per play.
So the Internet's Emperor currently has no clothes (or food or shelter, for that matter).
And if we're honest with ourselves, we must ask:
Why fight for money that doesn't exist? And (this is where you'll have to trust that I know what I'm talking about) - WON'T exist for several contract cycles.
My problem is, I've suffered through this righteous indignation on the part of my unions before. And I didn't speak up.
I regret that.
See, a few years ago, AFTRA pulled a similar stunt, negotiating what they thought was a very progressive victory: a triple session fee for a performer if a performer's commercial appeared on the Internet.
Great, you say?
We AFTRA performers all make more money, you say?
No. Not even close.
It resulted in the ad agencies that produced the spots simply refusing to authorize Internet play of those spots, and forced radio stations to drastically change their online automation playback, and to blank out those spots with AFTRA performances in their live streams with public domain classical music.
So AFTRA performers never got paid that hard fought triple session fee, and AFTRA unnecessarily burdened every commercial radio station in America.
The current landscape in Internet production of video, audio, Flash, YouTube videos and the like, is still, and will remain so for the next several years, a speculative one, and one with no foreseeable income.
No model has emerged, including subscription and advertising, that generates even the most meager incomes on the most runaway popular videos.
And when does emerge, like iTunes, it gets called not a godsend, and what consumers want and are willing to pay for.
It gets labeled "the ruin of the music industry" by NBC/Universal's leadership in their zeal to maintain outmoded budgets.
The most outrageously successful videos on the biggest outlet online, YouTube, generate 7-figure plays, and low 2 and 3 figure *monthly* incomes, with short-attention-span shelf life of a few months at best, as users find the next darling to virally spread. And no one is madly clicking on the ads on YouTube pages or anywhere else.
How many times have you left a video playback page on YouTube by clicking on an ad?
I find myself shaking my head in rueful concern over next summer's actor's contract negotiations when I see my SAG leader, Alan Rosenberg, sending me an email stating that "their fight (WGA's) is our fight."
Let me be very clear.
I loved him as the alcoholic lawyer on The Guardian a few years back on CBS, but here, today, Rosenberg is dead wrong, and he is endangering our chances to negotiate proper and real increases in our pay rates and health benefits.
He is doing so in favor of chasing after the Internet market.
Certainly, he and others are distracted by the fact that some websites like YouTube and Facebook have moronic, emotion-filled capital valuations the likes of which haven't been seen since the dot-com bust, but none are making money, and none have the near- or mid-term potential to make the kind of money that merits those valuations. Thankfully they're not individual public companies, and today's Henry Blodgetts can't hype them to death on the markets.
Unfortunately, what those websites do have is the ability to take viewers away from network and cable TV, and what have been very, very lucrative network audience and ad dollars, but darn the luck... they don't replace the lost network ad money with online ad money. And no one running these websites are telling the truth on that - it would harm their negotiations to be bought by the likes of Microsoft, Google or Yahoo.
No, it's just the same old romantic dot-com hype the mainstream press has been known for since they started covering the Internet, cluelessly, in the 90's. And in the end, the Internet's really just another delivery mechanism, another wire, with a more painful-to-watch output point (gather the family around the computer monitor?), not an incredible new market place.
And to make matters even worse, the mainstream media, in their zeal to cover sites like Napster, BitTorrent and Kazaa with such glowing admiration, has trained a whole generation of users to steal, or at the very least, expect everything to be free.
That means that if a market does emerge, we have some really damaging speed bumps in getting the public to pay and advertisers to pay.
That, so far, has been the reality for the folks on the other side of the negotiating table.
Certainly for some producers and writers, they might make money with very little outlay by making a great piece online, creating a demand for that creative work via viral success, then selling the series as DVDs or by creating series that air on traditional channels.
That's self production. That's creating your own content, so go negotiate with yourself.
Most of the people producing webisodes now are doing so, hoping they'll hit a home run... and a network will notice. That's not revolutionary at all. It's what indie artists have been doing for years on the music side of things.
So the WGA, our acting and performance membership, outspoken activist celebrities and our Guild and Federation leadership are, to me, out walking the picket lines, encouraging us to do the same, posturing themselves and our futures over a vast empty wasteland that currently is being experimented with - to no predictable success.
I believe that we are far too early in the infancy of this delivery mechanism to be defiantly sticking our chins out, demanding money that doesn't exist, when DVD sales and on-demand cable plays are clearly
demonstrable and are far more lucrative to producers and distributors, and from which we should be able to extract a more reasonable percentage.
Go back to the table, demand to rework the DVD and VOD formulas and keep an eye on the Net over the next few years, looking for real income, but don't throw down the precious gauntlet over it.
I believe that if the WGA gets what they want, they'll find that they fought over hardly anything, and squandered an opportunity to do something useful for their membership.
And before the conspiracy theories start, I am no shill for the producers.
I believe that you train people how to treat you and how well to remunerate you - and that we, as performers, are usually woefully underpaid.
But in saying all this, I fear that some of you will shun me as that smart ass capitalist Ayn Randian objectivist Ruth's Chris steak-eating barbarian who doesn't grasp the fundamentals of what it's like to be a struggling artist. And there, you would be correct, right up to the "doesn't grasp..." part of that sentence. I struggle every day as an actor, a writer, a filmmaker, a voice talent and more. But those of you know know me, know that I often find a way to success, especially on the Internet.
Not, however, as a webisodic producer. There's no money in it.
Do I keep silent, knowing that if I speak my mind, from what I consider to be a very informed position of first hand knowledge, I could be ostracized by my fellow performers?
Or do I clearly and succinctly speak up, hoping someone, somewhere in the WGA leadership receives this message as a forward, even a "can you believe how stupid this guy is?" forward, and changes their tactics to deal with the real and pressing issues they have?
I've made up my mind. Here goes:
I support my fellow writers' quest for better pay and better benefits, but I do not support the WGA strike over Internet production.
I think it is a mistake to get wrapped around the axle on demanding monies for Internet usage.
And, I believe that not only should the WGA take this demand off the table, I believe that if SAG and AFTRA pick up this fight next summer, they will be doing all of their members, including me, a grave disservice.
The producers will balk, knowing there really, really, really is no money to be shared, and will not be willing to capitulate. And then we'll strike, and we will all waste more time on the picket lines, labeling our employers incorrectly as being "unfair".
I urge you to pass this on to others in our community.
After I was given permission to publish the above, David also shared the following with me:
As an addendum, I received over 2,000 responses back from people to whom I sent this, many of whom had received it from my list members. Given the average active response rate from other media, I would estimate that a little over 200,000 people have seen it (1 out of 100 taking the time to write seems fair).
A little over 60 percent thanked me for voicing the very things they'd been thinking, and the rest took various shades of name-calling to simple "you have no idea what you're talking about".
One thing that came up over and over was that those that disagreed often assumed that I would take the contract offer as is. I would never sign an agreement that precluded any performer or writer from receiving residuals for any form of distribution including new media. I am not against the union. I wish we had leadership that didn't get lost in the tactics at the expense of clever and beneficial strategy, but that's for another time.
And finally, the money I've made on the Internet does not obviate my statement that the networks aren't making, or can't make, money on the net - in fact, it proves they can. Just not right now.
Do you have anything to add? What do you think?
CORRECTION: Earlier, I had mentioned that David was a member of the WGA. David is not a member of their guild at present.
UPDATE: David will answer your questions here on VOX Daily through comments. If you have a question, would appreciate a clarification or otherwise, please leave a comment and David will answer you here on VOX Daily.
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