On the Abuse of Talent in Media

[UPDATED w/correction: 13.11.07; see also my follow-up post on the industry's uncertainties about the digital future; comments much appreciated, as always].

Something's afoot in the world of media work, and it regrettably makes sense in the context of the ongoing abuse of talent. It is affecting the lives of media workers across industries: in journalism, computer and video games, and the fields of film and TV production.

Of course, the news these days is all about the labor troubles in the U.S. film and TV industry, as writers gear up for the first strike since 1988. Excellent coverage on all the issues involved can be found at Nikki Finke's Deadline Hollywood Daily blog. What is particularly interesting is perhaps not so much the specific issue - nobody has figured out this "internet thing" yet but everyone involved wants to secure a piece of the unknowable/unpredictable pie - but rather the framing of the dispute.

Writers are generally examples of "below the line" "invisible" labor in the industry (thanks to one of the commenters, probably one of the good folks over at MediaBistro who were kind enough to link to this, I edited this mistake; in fact, the 2007 writers' strike hits below the line workers - production assistants, grips, carpenters, and so on: the crew - quite hard, as with the shutting down of productions they are instantly let go, without much to look forward to over the upcoming months).

Save for the most successful ones - and for those who combine writing responsibilities with production duties - writers in film and television often work in relative obscurity, trying to create stories that they are passionate about while at the same time having to please a multitude of stakeholders: studio execs, directors, clients, financiers, actors... In many ways, they are at the epicenter of what it means to work in the media generally: negotiating tremendous constraints while also being at the heart of what makes the global entertainment industry goes round.

This makes the framing of their work and perspective by the studios quite baffling: writers are portrayed as greedy, as not "getting" the financial woes of the industry, the rising costs, the "nobody knows" dilemma facing anyone who produces media these days.

What underlies all of this, is perhaps the notion that this is not such a strict binary opposition as it seems to be. Not only have studios increasingly outsourced production to many more or less independent contractors (who then outsource writing), movie and TV production has also been moving outside of the U.S. at a steady pace in the last decade or so. First, those productions mainly went to Canada (which had its own similar strike by union ACTRA earlier this year), but that is changing too, as the Toronto Star reports:

"Ask anyone in the business of playing host to the once-steady stream of American film and TV productions here, and they'll tell you that things aren't what they were. The dollar's steady climb, provinces, states and countries around the globe chasing U.S. production dollars with increasingly aggressive incentive programs, and [Toronto's] now-glaring lack of purpose-built sound stages (the kind big-budget blockbusters demand) have withered the local production industry to a shell of its once-robust self."

Also, consider this quote from a November 2 analysis in the New York Times:

"As entertainment executives and these often distant owners wrestled with questions of their own about eroding influence — few in Hollywood were unaware that changing technology has almost gutted the traditional music business — the prospect of a confrontation with writers, and perhaps later with similarly aggressive actors, became all but inevitable."

In a way, writers and producers are increasingly disempowered by developments in the digital age and the increase in runaway production. I'm thinking about the parties that are involved in the conflict: directors, producers, writers, actors (and through them a wide network of affiliated businesses): these are all creative laborers, the talent that makes the media work. What I am arguing is, that this conflict and its framing perhaps is a reflection of a deeper unsettling trend in the industry: the increasing irrelevance of talent as a major source of investment throughout the media industries, as the economy shifts to consumers (instead of mass media-era producer-driven markets) and thus power shifts to those who control the pipelines rather than the content (cable companies, telco's, access providers).

To me, this debate is connected with other recent developments in media industries such as journalism and digital games, where successful strategies are considered to be cutting costs on labor (and thus: talent), focus on repurposing (franchises and content), and a growing emphasis on fan-produced and user-generated content and innovation. Consider recent statements by for example the British Union for Journalists in the context of this Monday's (November 5) Stand Up For Journalism day (see also the Save Journalism site of their U.S. counterparts CWA):

"Journalists from all sectors of the media - online, broadcasting, newspapers, magazines, books and PR - will be joining in to protest against savage cuts which are hampering their ability to keep the public informed. Most media companies make big money - but they engage in round after round of cuts to increase their profit margins. Journalists are too often reduced to a cross between call-centre workers and data processors, stuck at their desks re-jigging press releases. Who knows what corruption, lies, and law breaking is going on in the corridors of power - no one has the time to look."

Finally, in the game industry, similar rumblings are taking place. The world's biggest publisher, EA, is laying off people (last year in the U.S., this year in the U.K.) to please investors (read: stock market analysts) - while at the same time the EA CEO is publicly stating that it is time the publisher starts trusting (and thus investing in) unique and "visionary" talent...

I see connections, and these connections signal an abuse of talent.