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Labored Days

There has been a flurry of union activity in the industry recently, and it's hard not to think of that as we return from celebrating Labor Day. In our business, that's a holiday that also signals the beginning of the new television season on the traditional broadcast networks.

Of course, there is nothing much traditional about television anymore. What we watch and how we watch it, and certainly, even who is creating it, is a revolution in progress. The industry must learn to reassemble itself. That's true in the labor and management realm, too. With a multitude of new platforms, determining fair play and fair pay may become an explosive issue.

While consolidation may have been good for the bottom lines of big media companies, even necessary for survival, it looks a little different from where the average Jane or Joe sits.

Demands for increased productivity from a workforce slimmed by staff cuts causes stress for the names and faces behind the numbers on the balance sheet. As companies venture into new-media platforms—they must be there—smaller staffs do even more. Technology has also made it easier to replace experienced employees with daily hires lacking security or benefits.

We are encouraged by one recent development: The American Federation of Television and Radio Artists and the Screen Actors Guild, negotiating with a group that represents advertisers, recently formed a committee to study just how actors making commercials should be compensated. All sides know it's not business as usual anymore. The actors want residuals from commercials that might be seen on the Internet. But advertisers say, in the new universe, one commercial may be seen by just one person at a time—on a handheld device, for example. That's quite different from a commercial seen by millions on an episode of Lost. What is fair play?

The unions now have a contract to approve that will take them through 2008. Meanwhile, that committee formed by the union and the advertisers will propose new guidelines for a new world. That's hopeful—and smart. We advise that every media-labor contract be fortified with re-openers to account for radical changes in the marketplace. To some extent, the broadcast networks have already made that deal with their affiliates.

Shifts in the nature of the business have odd trickle-down effects. Reality-show writers, are striking at America's Next Top Model over the definition of their jobs. Being paid as a writer, presumably as a member of the Writers Guild of America, would drive up the price of relatively inexpensive reality shows.

This is a dispute that could be resolved if both sides considered what's fair. The television business has gone from black-and-white to color to very, very blurry. But in a business where many are paid so well, it should be possible to have a happy Labor Day every day of the year.