By Nick Winnie
Hollywood, it seems, has been turned on its head.
Ever since the Writers Guild of America (WGA) went on strike, both the town and its television and film industries have hardly resembled their usual selves. The studios’ normally bustling, chaotic sets became eerily calm and quiet when the strike halted production on new shows and movies Nov. 4. For the past three months, the strange new silence hanging over the sets has mingled with the clamor of rowdy WGA picketers, who crowd normally-empty L.A. sidewalks outside studio gates to march, yell, and demand a bigger slice of the industry’s digital-age pie.
The WGA strike began when the union’s 12,000 members confronted major studios, demanding that writers receive payment for TV shows and movies that are now being released on the Internet.
The issue of financial compensation for original material delivered over the Internet has become particularly contentious over the past year. Rapidly evolving media technology and the Internet-heavy activity from young consumers continue to deliver increasingly popular entertainment options as alternatives to traditional broadcast television, furthering the growth of an entirely different approach to media consumption.
“Your generation is used to getting entertainment on demand in one form or another,” said Jeffrey Melvoin, a longtime WGA member and former “Seinfeld” writer. “Its habits are moving toward ‘I want it when I want it, how I want it, and where I want it.’”
The new viewing patterns of young people have been encouraged by the emergence of a slew of new media and Internet technologies over the past several years. The rise of TiVo and On-Demand cable have allowed viewers to watch television shows at when they want and entirely without commercials. The explosion of YouTube and social networking sites has also provided media consumers with new, more interactive ways to spend their leisure time and view video footage.
According to a Pew Research Center survey published Jan. 9, the daily traffic to video sharing sites such as YouTube doubled in the last year.
“Consumers consume content in so many different ways now—on different platforms and in non-scheduled times. They are completely in control,” said Vivi Zeigler, executive vice president of digital entertainment at NBC. “One year ago, I could not have predicted the use patterns we see today.”
As the television industry watches much of its young audience exhibit new consumption habits and slowly drift toward alternate forms of media, it is adapting quickly by increasing its web presence. Networks now offer a much wider variety of entertainment options on their official websites, including full-length streaming episodes available after their broadcast airing, online-only digital extras, and interactive production blogs that explore how shows are made. Zeigler summarized her network’s new approach.
“As we develop shows for NBC air, the NBC.com team works side-by-side with the shows to create assets online,” she said. “NBC.com’s mission is to provide an experience that continues beyond the 30 or 60 minutes that their favorite show is on television.”
Networks have even gone so far as developing free websites that allow viewers to watch entire network shows streamed online, as is the case with Hulu.com, an advertisement-supported site being developed by the FOX and NBC networks that will be open to the public soon.
The crossover of television programming onto the Internet has become a new norm at local stations as well, including UC Santa Cruz’s own SCTV, the student-run local television station that began streaming its content online two years ago.
“There has been a general movement within SCTV to move towards on-demand entertainment,” said Jeremy Karafin, the assistant director of student media at UCSC. “If it’s not online, it doesn’t exist.”
Since early November, striking WGA writers have argued that under the current industry agreement they will be excluded from an equitable portion of the digital era’s entertainment profits, while major studios contend that the economics of the Internet are still too unpredictable to come to a new labor agreement that considers web revenue.
As negotiations between the WGA and major studios reached an impasse in mid-December, many writers who were frustrated with the halted negotiations began searching for innovative ways to reach audiences and sell their work without studio involvement. Aaron Mendelsohn, who wrote the screenplay for Disney flick “Air Bud” and is a member of the WGA negotiating committee, has become a recognized leader of this forward-looking group of prominent industry professionals who have rallied around the writer-owned Internet production company he recently founded.
“Vitual Artists Inc. was born out of the strike, as the studios’ negotiating committee went down the rabbit hole,” Mendelsohn said. “As we waited for the latest ridiculous offer to come in, we realized that we could deliver our content directly to the masses through the Internet.”
Virtual Artists Inc. is the collaborative brainchild of a pool of Hollywood’s most prominent writers and several leading software designers, and it is being seen by many as a potentially revolutionary force in the entertainment industry. The independent venture is composed entirely of WGA writers and industry professionals and is hoping to receive over $30 million from investors in order to begin developing films and television shows to release on its website, virtualartists.tv.
The company’s stated purpose is to direct the future of film and television entertainment towards a new paradigm, one Mendelsohn referred to as “Hollywood 2.0”, where professional-grade content would be delivered to viewers online without what it sees as the restrictive influence of major studios.
Mendelsohn views this approach as an evolutionary outgrowth of the YouTube phenomenon, and one that is perfectly in line with the history of entertainment.
“Whenever there’s some new form of storytelling technology, it always begins with a mirror and bit of novelty,” Mendelsohn said.
He explained that YouTube and all amateur content posted on the Internet are essentially digital-age incarnations of the basic, rudimentary self-portraits first seen in the earliest still and moving pictures. With time, he explained, these humble images always blossom into highly sophisticated art forms and profitable entertainment when skilled professionals become acquainted with the new mediums.
Extending this metaphor to YouTube, he said, “Now the mirror image has solidified, and it is time for the professional storytellers to come in.”
Mendelsohn’s vision of the role his company will play within entertainment history may appear grandiose at first, but the central concept of Virtual Artists Inc. has been gaining ground in Hollywood largely because the economics of Internet entertainment—still largely a mystery to all interested parties—may actually enable such an idea to come to fruition.
“This is groundbreaking,” said Michael Tabb, WGA member and producer of Strike TV, a new membership-only WGA website that allows striking writers to post their original content and collaborate with one another on new projects. “The great thing about the Internet is that while the mediums of TV and feature films require exceedingly large amounts of advertising money and large audiences, Internet movies don’t have to cater to those needs, which opens the doors of creative expression.”
Tabb’s opinion echoes the hopes of many striking writers, who equate independence from major studios with greater creative freedom, and ultimately with a more democratic and dynamic form of entertainment. The proponents of “Hollywood 2.0” hope that their proposed medium’s smaller production budgets and entirely different distribution style would enable their work to thrive from the support of smaller niche audiences that would reward more diverse approaches to writing and producing TV shows and films.
“Instead of distributing content to them, they discover content from us and distribute it to friends,” Mendelsohn said. “This is totally democratizing in the spirit of the Internet — it’s a decentralized, egalitarian, and largely free system.”
Though the Internet may now appear to be the all-powerful, unpredictable medium upon which writers and studio executives place all of their greatest hopes and fears, this does not necessarily mean the end is near for broadcast television.
“The history of television is a history of changing technology and changing viewing practices,” said L.S. Kim, an assistant professor of film and digital media at UCSC. “The idea that television is facing a crisis is not new.”
Kim noted that about once every decade, television and its major networks are threatened by apparently menacing technologies like the VCR or digital recording, but the medium always endures. She attributes television’s staying power in America partially to a force new Internet-based media formats may have trouble fighting.
“There is a communal cultural television experience that is not going away any time soon,” Kim said.
In order for the alternative vision of “Hollywood 2.0” to catch on, it must also battle the skepticism of advertisers, many who are still hesitant to shift their focus to online entertainment.
“It could take a few years to become a profitable business model,” Mendelsohn said. “Advertisers are reluctant to get into bed with this model, but as the quality of content moves to the net, advertisers are getting more excited.”
On the topic of advertising and new media, former Seinfeld writer Jeffrey Melvoin said, “At the point when advertisers decide a better placement to put their money, that’s where the content will follow.” Melvoin emphasized that advertisers will inevitably go where they see the best return for their investments and base their decisions on the viewing habits of their audience.
Jeremy Fong, a young designer for Hulu.com, believes that the tastes of young consumers will ultimately decide whether or not a new internet-based model will come to replace the broadcast television medium that has brought us our entertainment for the last half of a century.
“Ultimately, our generation of consumers will decide how all of this plays out,” Fong said.
Most of the striking writers, industry professionals, and software designers engaged in efforts to revolutionize film and television are in agreement that regardless of when the WGA strike ends and whether or not their new ventures find immediate success, this moment in the history of entertainment is one of momentous transition, and one they are trying to mold into a shape of their own choosing.
“Studios and networks have been telling our stories for 100 years, but we’ve been telling them for 100,000 years,” said Aaron Mendelsohn. “Technology evolves, but what doesn’t change is that people always want great stories.”