WGA strikers fighting for yet-to-arrive Web residuals

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The Writers Guild of America doesn't strike lightly, but when scribes took to the streets on Nov. 5, one of their primary concerns was over Internet residuals. Original production and distribution of current material looks, in the long run, to be a cash cow, and no one wants to be left out of the pasture.

Still, that has left any number of questions open, including just how much writers are even currently affected by what's developing on the Internet. Enterprising content creators like Emmy winners Edward Zwick and Marshall Herskovitz were knee-deep in their new series, "Quarterlife," which debuted on MySpace last month, by the time the strike launched. As writers began waving picket signs, Zwick and Herskovitz were making history -- two of the best-known writer-producers in network television had made an ongoing, high-quality series purely for the Net.

"I have been doing this full-time for almost a year and a half," says Herskovitz ("thirtysomething"), speaking of his Web creation, which centers on six creative people in their 20s. "What we are doing is six hourlong stories that we are breaking up into little pieces. Each part is eight minutes long, but they are conceived as hourlong episodes, because I don't know how to tell an emotional story in eight minutes."

Herskovitz must have managed to tell his emotional story rather well. One fellow writer-producer notes that "everyone in the community is talking about it," and advertisers such as Pepsi and Toyota have come on board. Now NBC has picked up the series for its television network -- it will premiere midseason after it concludes its Internet run.

All that should be welcome news for other writers watching Zwick and Herskovitz as if they were the canaries in the coal mine, testing out this new, baffling medium. And, on more than one level, they have been, not just for the series itself, but also for whether it violates WGA strike regulations. (Herskovitz has denied that it does, noting that the episodes were written prestrike, and that he's open to negotiating an independent deal with the WGA.)

Herskovitz and Zwick might have figured out a way to move forward successfully with Internet programming, but it remains a mystery for many WGA members over how to create serious income from the Internet that will rival television and movie payouts.

"It's people putting on shows, making small amounts and hoping to make more in the future," says writer Matt Lazarus, who is developing his own Web sitcom, "Lazarus," about a fictionalized, evil version of himself. His pilot is budgeted at $100.

"When it comes to grown-up stuff, like when MySpace gets involved, they are going to put a lot more money into it," Lazarus adds hopefully. But for now, the money is more speculative than real.

"As of yet, there's not that much," Herskovitz acknowledges, even referring to his own show, which has been financed partly by Herskovitz's and Zwick's own cash. "But, with each passing month, that model is going to change. We are edging toward convergence, to a continuum between broadband and television. As that happens, the advertising dollars will come here as well."

Even before the ad dollars make that shift, insiders are seeing a host of opportunities for writers on the Internet.

George Hickenlooper, who, along with fellow writer Alan Sereboff, had just created a campaign of strike-response Web PSAs for the WGA called "Speechless" (featuring artists and filmmakers discussing the importance of the craft of writing), got advice from his ICM agent that now was the time to start thinking of future Web projects. He is already at work developing several of them.

Producers who have a keen eye on the Internet believe that the presence of talent like this will lead financiers and advertisers to invest more heavily in Web productions.

"Initially, no one knew what to do with it," says Thomas L. Carter, co-head of production for Station3, a production and management company that is developing material for the Internet. "But the fact that the content is out there and readily available has changed things. It has become a very valuable distribution medium, which has changed the paradigm for the writers. This has become a real opportunity for writers to put something together and have it produced."

Even Carter says he is surprised at the speed at which that has happened. "No one expected it to become large-scale so quickly. The value follows that. Any Web site with a million hits a day garners the same sets of eyeballs that an episode of (ABC's) 'Ugly Betty' does on TV. And advertisers will follow them."

Internet "pseudo-networks," as Carter calls them, are already popping up to take advantage of this newly minted product -- sites like GoPotato.TV or MyDamnChannel or SuperDeluxe, "where you have 20 shows to choose from." And dealing with them "is just like regular TV, where you walk into the companies pitching ideas."

Already, several writers are creating work exclusively for the Web. In some cases, this involves "webisodes" done by the writing staff of shows like ABC's "Lost"; in other cases, the Web is allowing writers to show work that might not otherwise be seen -- like "Sailing the Star of India," a film by "The Tonight Show With Jay Leno" (NBC) show writer Joe Medeiros that was shown on Al Gore's Current TV and won a $1,000 prize. And that's barely the tip of the iceberg.

"Daytime (shows) will be the first to make the jump into full-on Internet," says Rick Draughon, who recently created his own Internet soap, "Coastal Dreams." "The viewership on daytime is declining more than other areas, and (companies) like NBC will want to find another outlet for them."

Draughon, who spent six years writing for NBC's "Days of Our Lives," was hired by NBC.com to create "Coastal Dreams."

"When I was approached by NBC.com, it was, 'We are thinking of doing this. It is going to be an experiment. Do you want to be part of it?' I said, 'Absolutely.' People watch soaps when they have time, and they like to watch them on the go, and that was NBC's idea: 'How can we test this market by creating a show that is three to five minutes now, and in the future, we might be able to do five to 15 minutes?'"

Draughon was lucky to have an ample budget, by Internet-scale: He got "in the $300,000-$500,000 zone" for the series and shot 24 episodes in four days.

Herskovitz also had a large sum to play with, though again, not by network standards. "The average television show costs $2.5 million per episode, and the average hour on the Internet is $50,000-$150,000," he says. "We are in between, per hour."

Those budgets are growing rapidly. Just six months ago, Station3's Carter says, "we were seeing material produced for the Web with non-names and nonactors, like 'Lonelygirl15,'" one of the most celebrated Web creations. But now, with some of the production houses, "we are seeing the birth of real production budgets. Sometimes they are anywhere from $1,000-$20,000 per episode -- and when you consider that you are shooting three-minute episodes, that could be a real potential budget."

That budget, however, goes to cover all the production costs as well as the writers' salaries, meaning that only a relative pittance is finding its way into the writers' pockets.

Nor are writers likely to find any greater creative freedom within the Internet than they find working for the corporations that control the networks and studios. Unless they follow Herskovitz's advice and become entrepreneurs, that is.

"We are forgetting recent history," he says, "which is that starting around 1980 with Steven Bochco, writers took over television. Before 1980, television was dominated by nonwriting producers; the Aaron Spellings of the world were the kings of television. But around 1980, there was this amazing ascendance of writer-producers, and the networks basically let them do what they wanted to do."

He adds: "The lesson in all of this is, if you are a writer with no hyphen attached to it, you are still subject to the powers that be. So in the Internet, writers must become producers, they must become entrepreneurs. This is a remarkable opportunity to create independent programming, which doesn't cost a hell of a lot to make and which doesn't cost a hell of a lot to market. This is an opportunity for writers to be generators."
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