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Cooperate And Thrive

In a speech in Washington a few weeks ago, NBC Universal President Jeff Zucker said that NBC has been “ripping apart old business models” and trying on “radically new” ones in an effort to suit up for a whole new world of content delivery.

ABC’s chief labor negotiator last week opined that to be able to compete in the future, the network and its stations need to get leaner and nimbler to hold on to diminished audiences migrating to “cable, the Web and other forms of home entertainment, that simply didn’t exist until very recently.”

That’s all true, of course. But the executives in their Armani suits who are ripping up the old way of doing business must figure a way to compensate the people who create their programs whether they work on a keyboard or in a control room.

The looming Writers Guild of America (WGA) strike between the writers and producers of TV shows is the most publicized example of a digitally-driven dynamic between management and labor. But it’s not the only one.

ABC and its engineers are haggling over the seniority system. ABC says that in the digital age it needs to hang onto younger workers with the technical skills and flexibility to thrive in an industry that now moves at the speed of Megabits per second. The workers fear that is a convenient excuse for laying off older, higher paid workers instead of retraining them.

Elsewhere the writers guilds are in years-long negotiations with both ABC and CBS over contracts for news employees. Again, the networks want greater flexibility in a changing environment. And just last week the American Federation of Television and Radio Artists and the International Alliance of Theatrical and Stage Employees held their first skull session to figure out what their common interests are for members that, between them, are involved in TV news, sports, entertainment, commercials, cable and the Internet.

Studios and networks are spending millions on online real estate. Despite press release explanations of “leveraging new platforms” we suspect they are often just throwing stuff against the wall, looking for a way to win the game without knowing what the rules are and what the winner gets. There is considerable risk and likely, considerable reward.

The unions also want a fair share of the potential return. It’s logical that they get it. Given the creative accounting of the studio industry, the concern that some of that new digital revenue may not trickle down to is understandable.

The WGA could strike as early as this week, and as of this writing a job action seems likely. We hope it can be avoided. The Guild understands the seismic shifts in this business. It knows nobody will have jobs if the business model doesn’t work. And producers and networks know that they have to pay writers for putting content on different platforms. The fairest result would be an agreement to some kind of trust-but-verify model for establishing where creative content is being sold by media companies and what percentage of that should go to the people who created it. Fair is fair.