Monday, November 12, 2007

The Screen Writers Guild strike, technology, and the future of scripted television

Part IV - 1948 All Over Again?

Neither television industry executives, nor the writers, nor any of us viewers know where scripted episodic drama and comedy programming will end up within five years. We need to think in terms of media, source of funding, format or survival.

Consider again the radio-to-tv transition of the 1948-to-1958 period and thereafter. NBC, which was the top national radio network of the 1930's and 40's, survived as a corporation in the entertainment industry. And in the summer of 1987, NBC Radio's network operations were sold to Westwood One, and the NBC-owned stations were sold to various buyers. (The same case occurred with the Mutual Broadcasting System and CBS Radio, which Westwood One acquired and essentially merged with NBC Radio.)

It's easy to understand the Screen Writers Guild strike in the context of the Alliance of Motion Picture and Television Producers refusal to seriously talk about residuals from new media. Consider headlines such as "With writers on strike, networks ready a dose of reality with plenty of games." You may be getting a glimpse of the future of ad-based broadcast tv. As a scripted art form, tv may soon be delivered to your home however and by whomever.

It's 1948 all over again, except broadcast tv is now in the position of radio. Or is it?

Yes, that ad supported NBC channel you watch now may degenerate into only news, sports, and televaudeville. But there is something you need to know about that TV station - it has gone digital. Over-the-airwaves local TV stations are now broadcasting as many as four digital channels. A digital signal can be encrypted, meaning you could be charged for access to the signal.

We could begin to see subscription-based over-the-airwaves TV following the HBO/Showtime model. NBC-Universal may figure this out and may help their affiliate local stations by distributing scripted programming for subscription-based TV, perhaps with shows having a sponsor like the PBS model. And if the NBC/Universal thinks of it, you could start seeing the cable USA and Bravo channels on those sub-signals, attempting to capture that remaining 15% of the TV market not served by cable or satellite. The FCC will allow all this in the name of competition.

So maybe it is 1948 again, and to paraphrase Zucker, everyone in the business of scripted video needs to figure out an economic model that will work, including the Screen Writers Guild and the Alliance of Motion Picture and Television Producers. The Screen Actors Guild members should take note - stars receive large sums per episode likely may become a thing of the past because no one's going to find a market for a $5 million episode of a 30 minute comedy. And the Screen Actors Guild and the Directors Guild both have contracts expiring in June 2008. Everyone needs to start figuring out how to share those residuals.

Continue to Part V

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