Writers Seek Piece of Digital Pie in New Contract

In Hollywood, the hot topic is the contract with film and TV writers, which expires in October. Negotiations between the Writers Guild and the studios get underway this month. At the center of the contract talks: how writers will be paid when their shows are on iPods, cell phones, or computers.

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The hot topic in Hollywood is a behind the scenes drama - a possible strike when the contract with film and TV writers expires in October. Negotiations between the Writers Guild and the studios get underway this month. At the center of the contract talks, how writers will be paid when their shows are on new media - that's iPod, cell phones or computers.

Gloria Hillard reports.

GLORIA HILLARD: You missed your favorite show, or maybe just the beginning of, let's say, "Grey's Anatomy." All you have to do is log on to ABC's Web site, click on the banner that says Watch ABC Shows Online Now - well, first, there's a commercial.

(Soundbite of commercial)

Unidentified Woman: Lose yourself in the silky smooth taste of Dove chocolate.

HILLARD: And then…

(Soundbite of TV show, "Grey's Anatomy")

Unidentified Man: Previously on "Grey's Anatomy."

(Soundbite of music)

Ms. Ellen Pompeo (Actress): (As Dr. Meredith Grey) No one believes their life will turn out just kind of okay.

Mr. JOHN BOWMAN (Writer; Chair, 2007 WGA Negotiating Committee): This is something that I never would have foreseen happening a few years ago, but now they're on multiple platforms - television and the Internet.

HILLARD: John Bowman is a veteran writer in Hollywood. He also chairs this year's negotiating committee for the Writers Guild. He says writers getting paid for when their works appear online or your iPod will be the key issue in the contract talks.

Mr. BOWMAN: TV writers have a very good rate when it's on cable, and we have a very good rate when it's done on broadcast TV. But they're paying us at this very small rate when it goes to the Internet. And generally, 20 to 50 percent of a writer's income is derived from the re-use of his material. So you can understand why writers are up in arms.

HILLARD: If the writers are up in arms, the producers have their arms crossed. Nicholas Counter, the president of the Alliance of Motion Picture and Television Producers, says when it comes to digitally delivered entertainment…

Mr. NICHOLAS COUNTER (President, Alliance of Motion Picture and Television Producers): We are uncertain as to what the revenue streams are and what the costs are going to be. And what we are going to propose is that all those new media outlets for television and theatrical motion pictures be studied.

HILLARD: In the meantime, Counter acknowledges the networks are preparing for a possible writer's strike by speeding up productions and ordering more reality programs.

Mr. COUNTER: Because they are strike-proof. And so those are kinds of things that the studios and the networks are planning as we speak.

HILLARD: The networks have also asked some producers to deliver extra episodes of popular shows in case there is a strike. Carolyn Finger is vice president of TVtracker.com, a consulting firm for the industry.

Ms. CAROLYN FINGER (Vice President, Tvtracker.com): Dick Wolf has never been shy about acknowledging - he's the, you know, obviously, the creator of the "Law & Order" series of shows. And he's always been very upfront about we'll do extra episodes. We'll shoot on an accelerated schedule. And then also the show runner for "Las Vegas" - also, they skipped the hiatus.

HILLARD: The writers' contract with the studios expires in the fall, and not that far behind, the contracts for Hollywood's actors and directors will be up for renewal. That means a perfect storm is brewing in Hollywood, one that could threaten an industry-wide strike.

For NPR News, I'm Gloria Hillard.

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