Do Writers Still Matter?

There are many ways of examining the Writer’s Guild strike as it heads into its second month. You could examine some of the business issues – do the studios have any credibility in claiming that new media holds no profit for the foreseeable future? Or you could look at the power of American labor and ask if the idea of an honest day’s pay for an honest day’s work still means anything in the global economy. Or you could take the flippant approach and assume that the writers are simply another overpaid sector of the entertainment industry asking for even more money.

But there’s a theme bubbling under the surface here, a belief that the impact of professional writers in today’s media environment has been lessened. The suggestion is that much of today’s entertainment either isn’t written at all or is nothing more than the re-writing of old ideas – shows and movies from Hollywood’s glory days – and thus not a truly creative product. There’s also that buried assumption that these so-called “writers” are already paid so much that it’s simply selfish to ask for more.

You could find some of these attitudes in stories in the media, such as the one about the “good news” of the strike: newsmagazine shows might benefit. Peter Chernin, president of News Corp., crowed about how good the strike would be for Fox, saving money on cancelled deals and unshot pilots, while allowing the network to make money on American Idol and other reality fare. A reluctantly striking writer sent an e-mail to The National Review, claiming that with “football, The Next Iron Chef, and Law and Order re-runs” who needs writers? (This attitude – ironically, from a Guild member – ignores the fact that fictional fare has long competed with sports and that the heart of the strike is precisely about residuals from repeats and new platforms.)

But while so-called “reality” shows offer competitions, game shows and human train wrecks, giving you the sense that it’s all just unspooling before the cameras, the truth is that almost nothing you see on television is presented in a raw, unedited form (And the writers employed by reality shows are not covered by the Guild, an issue which has come up in the current negotiations). Beyond the reality genre, it’s possible in the face of YouTube and other amateur online video sources to assume that craft is no longer required to create content.

But that assumption is incorrect.

Within the entertainment industry, writing is simultaneously the most and least valued aspect of the process. Since just about anybody can operate a pen or keyboard, there is often the perception that anyone can write. Whether your favorite show is a sit-com, a reality show or even a YouTube video, somebody sat down and had to figure out, “What’s going to happen this week?”

Content doesn’t happen by accident. It happens as a result of determining what kind of things will happen, who will be doing those things and what they will say as they do those things. And while it’s possible for talent and creativity to come from anywhere, online video (which is getting better all the time) has yet to produce a consistent stream of content as good as The Simpsons or Lost. While the studios may think the answer is that they can make money off of amateur online videos, saving themselves some production costs, they shouldn’t forget that the writers could also ditch the studios and head straight for the Internet.

Whether you call it content or story or anything else, it’s a skill to create it. And whether you’re J.K. Rowling or a guy with a webcam, it’s the same set of creative muscles that are flexed. The writer’s strike is about the value we place on that effort. The answer to my question ought to be that writers will always matter as long as people want to be amused and excited. We ought to acknowledge that writing is embedded throughout our daily consumption of entertainment and information, regardless of the media platform.

Once that premise is accepted, then the studios and the writers can figure out the fair compensation. But let’s not pretend the craft of writing no longer matters.