Thursday, February 11, 2010

Writers Guild of America, East Embracing New Media

The Writers Guild of America, East launched an initiative in October 2009 called “Writers Guild 2.0” to address how digital media impacts the ability of writers to balance the urge to create with the need to earn a living. The WGAE is now actively signing digital media companies to Guild agreements and added 22 digital media companies as signatories in 2009 alone.

Martha Byrne's GOTHAM, which recently passed one million page views and has steadily improved since its debut, is one example of an indie web soap that is now a Writers Guild signatory show. Other signatories include Indie Soap Award winner for Best Web Series, Comedy, THEN WE GOT HELP! and the Daryn Strauss series DOWNSIZED, both of which are regularly reported on in our Indie Soap Beat column.

We Love Soaps spoke with WGAE executive director Lowell Peterson about the initiative and the impact it may have on our favorite indie soaps and web series.

We Love Soaps: Web series have been around for years, but in the past year they have really gained more attention. How long have web series been on the WGA's radar?
Lowell Peterson: I've been at the Guild going on two years, and I know for the past year, especially the last eight to 10 months, we have been focusing on made-for-the-web shows, including soaps and daytime serial programs made directly for digital. One of the things we've done is to really think deeply about what it means to be writing for the web, or creating content for the web, as opposed to traditional television. In some ways there are a lot of similarities and in other ways it's a very different medium. What we've tried to do is listen a lot to what people had to say to us about what it's like to write for the internet and mobile devices. In the soap area, a lot of folks doing it are already Guild members. Martha Byrne is a good example with GOTHAM. She's a Guild member.

A lot of the other folks who are not Guild members would love to be because it's a great place for creative people to get together and talk about what it's like, and network and share thoughts about skills and styles, and gossip. I think we're a really good fit. A lot of writers find that being part of the Guild means they're part of a broader community of like-minded folks. In terms of our actual organizing, we've been doing it for less than a year. The strike in 2007-08 was about digital. But at that point people were thinking mostly about streaming of existing or traditional content. More recently we've been focusing our resources and analysis on made-for the web shows.

We Love Soaps: That's a great distinction. I remember a lot of discussions about the web during the writers' strike, but the talk was about rebroadcasting shows online that had aired on TV.
Lowell Peterson: It's certainly important that people who write for TV or the big screen get paid for those reuses and we're enforcing those provisions. But there's a not-so-new world, but newer world, burgeoning online. We want to be part of it and we are.

We Love Soaps: Some of the shows create their content and put it out there and hope to find a sponsor, but there are shows that have figured it out and been able to get sponsorship and make money right off the bat.
Lowell Peterson: We have a bit of a perfect storm with the economy being in terrible shape. It will eventually turn around and some of the monetization problems will get solved by that. Right now people are trying to create new revenue models in an extremely difficult climate. I think the advertisers are going to catch on to the fact that web and mobile advertising can be very targeted and therefore very valuable even if you don't have necessarily the same number of eyeballs watching. There's going to be a lot of creative ways of thinking about it. We look a lot at the creative side but people have to get paid.

We Love Soaps: Has something changed recently with the WGAE to bring this new focus on new media?
Lowell Peterson: I would say something has changed and we're doing a lot of outreach. What perhaps has changed is that we're approaching this world with our minds open, and recognize our traditional models of representation don't necessarily apply. For example, a lot of people who write for the web own their content whereas if you write for a network you don't own your content. So we have to think about what that means. There's a very different series of business structures. We have to think about how to set up contracts differently. We're also very much open to the fact that people are experimenting with the business models.

The outreach has underscored for us the importance of listening as much as preaching. We have extraordinarily active digital caucuses with lots of people who come to many meetings with a lot of ideas. It's been a shot in the arm for us in terms of energy. Something we've started very recently was set up seminars and social events so that the more traditionally successful folks and the new digital folks can mingle and learn about each other's industries. I think they recognize one another and see the same creative impulse in each other's eyes.

Our members who are successful in TV and film also have open minds about this. They're as excited to hear about how digital style can be different, how the lengths of your acts have to be different, how interactive might make a different, and all kinds of stuff that's happening. With respect to the soaps, this is a natural fit because we have so many daytime writers who are in the Guild. The TV side of that is not the most robust its ever been so people are ready for new opportunities.

We Love Soaps: Can anyone join the Guild?
Lowell Peterson: In the East, the only thing you need to do is work under a Guild contract, you have to do what we call Guild covered work. You don't have to have any particular number of credits or have earned a particular amount of money. We looked at that and thought that was a good thing for us because it's hard to come up with standards for burgeoning areas. All you have to do is covered work. You can only vote on contracts and collective bargaining agreements if you earn a certain amount of money.

EDITOR'S NOTE: Web series are covered by the Guild so if you're writing for a web series you are eligible to be considered.

We Love Soaps: What are the main benefits of joining the Guild, especially for those people who are producing web series that may not have TV or film credits?
Lowell Peterson: There are a number of benefits. The most immediate benefit is being part of a creative community of like-minded writers that love to create stories and move audiences. I don't want to understate that. I think it's really important to people to have their work recognized and be able to sit down and talk to people who do the same thing. That sense of creative community and professional community is really important.

Also, if your show is covered, you can get benefits on it if you are bringing in enough money to pay the contributions necessary to hit the threshold. So it's not as if a completely non-monetized web series will get people benefits. But as you move up the ladder and start to bring in more revenue and the writers get paid, having health benefits is a really nice thing. And our benefits are quite good and the contribution is not really high. I think some producers will take a look at that and say, "Hey, this is a good idea." This is way to get people into the Guild's health and pension plans and have a more stable life as a result.

We Love Soaps: In addition to GOTHAM, I spoke with Julie Ann Emery from THEN WE GOT HELP! recently about the Guild as well. I see this as another way to legitimize some of these shows in the future.
Lowell Peterson: I think so. We don't just sign anything that moves. We do have a process by which we watch the shows and sign the folks we think are really committed to the craft of writing. I think you'll find the shows we sign deserve to be legitimized. The writers feel great about it because some have been toiling away sometimes for very low pay and felt left out of the industry which shouldn't be the case.

I think of this period being similar to the birth of radio and the birth of TV. No one knows exactly how it's going to be shaped. But there a lot of talented people shaping it. We would like to have the Guild be part of it. Decisions will be made about how the businesses are structured, how the revenues steams are divided up, and about who has creative control. One of the central missions of the Writers Guild is to make sure that writers partake in those decisions and have a seat at the table. These decisions are not going to be made in some abstract way and writers need to have a voice. We aim to be the voice.


  1. Our show, "Proper Manors," intends to be SAG and WGA signatory. Thanks for a great article!

  2. Please, no. The reason for the demise of the American soap opera is financial. They simply became too expensive to produce and were therefore rendered unprofitable. The reason for the continued growth in production costs was directly caused by the Unions.

    Now the Unions are heading to the Web. Goodnight soap operas and indie movies and uncensored art.

    Of course artists need and deserve to make a living. But, now all of these people are completely out of work. Nice going Unions.