Writers Seek Net Pay

Internet issues remain at the center of the negotiations as motion picture and television writers prepare to go on strike this week.

Internet issues remain at the center of the negotiations as motion picture and television writers prepare to go on strike this week.

Compensation for work appearing on the Net is among the top concerns of negotiators trying to hash out an agreement between the Writers Guild of America and television and movie producers who are represented by the Alliance of Motion Picture & Television Producers.

The WGA, which represents writers in the motion picture, broadcast, cable and new media industries, have vowed to strike after its current agreement with producers expires on May 1 if no breakthrough can be reached. That agreement, known as the Minimum Basic Agreement, is used as the starting point for negotiating contracts with members.

By some accounts, the WGA is trying to become as powerful online as it is with television and film. "The Internet is a huge emerging market and they wouldnt be doing their job as a union if they didnt make sure the WGA is here [on the Net]," said editor and producer Michael Lindenbaum at Release Entertainment, who doesnt belong to the writers or to the producers group.

The writers want to ensure they are duly compensated when motion pictures and television programming are reused on the Internet. Since the negotiations are being conducted under a media blackout, its not clear which pay formulas either side prefers or whether writers wish to be compensated even if a studio does not charge users to watch a program.

The WGA is eager to hammer out a compensation structure for the nascent Internet medium. Members feel they have missed out on valuable residuals from movies redistributed through channels like basic cable, home video and overseas sales, which were once considered new media avenues as well.

According to union members, writers have accepted low residuals for years to enable those markets to grow. Now that they have experienced fantastic growth, its time to renegotiate the formulas, the Guild said. The AMPTPs Web site says it will propose "improving residuals formulas where justified."

Alan Jay Glueckman, a WGA member and Internet content creator, said his negotiators are likely to manage the issue with care. "I believe that we will give them a break now to grow the business, but as the business becomes mature, we should be paid correspondingly," he said.

The two sides are also trying to figure out other Net-related issues, like rights and fees for original content produced for the Web. Theyre reportedly demanding residuals for Web content that is subsequently reused on TV. Likewise, writers often receive health and pension benefits when residuals are owed, so the Guild is reportedly asking that those benefits be included in an Internet formula.

Actors could be next to strike if their guilds, the Screen Actors Guild and the American Federation of Television & Radio Artists, fail to reach an agreement with producers by June 30. The actors will also push for the creation of residual models for Internet distribution.

The actors guilds have already won a significant Internet victory. Commercial actors are supposed to be compensated when advertisers repurpose made-for-radio or made-for-TV ads on the Internet. Those terms, which remain contentious, were included in the contract the unions negotiated with the Association of National Advertisers and the American Association of Advertising Agencies last fall.

The fact that writers, actors and producers are battling over Internet residuals offers strong evidence that the groups believe the Net will be a major entertainment medium in the not-too-distant future.

"I think the studios know they cant sign off to the writers and say, Whatever percentage you want, because they know theyre talking about some revenue at some point, and writers know as well. You could be talking about billions of dollars," Lindenbaum said.

At least one online entertainment Web site, TheThreshold.com, is wary of unions gaining too much control online.

"It would put me out of business to pay residuals," said Larry Kasanoff, chairman and CEO of Threshold Entertainment. "This is not the time to say what we need are higher costs of getting content. My plea is wait a few more years until the business has matured. This is not the time to be unionizing the Internet."