Writers' strike: As reruns take over television, eyes shift to new media

As the Hollywood screenwriters' strike stretches into its fifth week, viewers, networks, and content creators all look to alternative outlets for fresh entertainment. Will they ever go back to mainstream media?

Bill Jones says demand is up 30 percent in the past month for his Georgia-based Air2Web, which provides technology for cellphone users to cast votes for reality-show contestants.

Chris Spencer, head of Pittsburgh-based Wizzard Media, the largest podcast-hosting network, says downloads jumped 13 percent in the week after the Hollywood screenwriters' strike began and have continued "to spike up" since.

Angela Wilson Gyetvan, with the video-sharing website Revver, says the number of studios and production houses exploring partnerships rose 20 percent in November.

All three new-media mavens say they are beneficiaries of the four-week-old screenwriters' strike, as TV watchers tune into new options and as networks and studios seek ways to avoid dreaded reruns. While an explosion of unscripted game shows and reality shows is predictable, a more surprising result is the accelerated interest in new media, which may mature and move into the mainstream more speedily as a result, analysts say.

"A prolonged strike is an engraved invitation to new choices," says Jeffrey Cole, director of the Center for the Digital Future at the University of Southern California here.

For creators and viewers alike, those new choices include everything from quickie videos made on a cellphone camera and uploaded to videosharing websites like YouTube to festival-worthy independent films made by film school grads to audio and video podcasts made in the comfort of one's own basement or attic.

The opportunity for new media during this strike is comparable to the windfall experienced by cable and by a then-nascent fourth network, Fox, during the five-month writer's strike in 1988, say Professor Cole and others. But this time, the range of beneficiaries stretches from the relatively minor (presidential candidates who get a temporary reprieve from jabs on late-night TV) to the profound (a major boost to alternative media that could speed a shift already under way in global entertainment).

"The 'so what?' factor is huge," says Peter Lehman, director of the Center for Film, Media, and Popular Culture at Arizona State University. One result of the strike is to expose more people to user-created content on the Web and to direct more creative energies to that outlet, thereby underscoring the importance of the very same emerging entertainment models that are the sticking point in the current negotiations between writers and producers.

Labor negotiations were set to resume Tuesday. Late last week, the major Hollywood studios presented striking screenwriters with a new set of proposed pay formulas for digital media, but the writers' union rebuffed the offer as far too stingy, according to Reuters. The talks have foundered largely on the failure to reach accord on writers' demands for a greater share of revenue for film and TV work distributed over the Internet and wireless devices, such as cellphones.

"We have a situation in which millions of people have an extra one to two hours on their hands with no new TV shows, and so they are saying, 'What do I do with that time?' " says Russell Zack, vice president of products for Anystream, a company with 700 media clients in 40 countries, including CNN, ESPN, Fox News, MTV Networks, and The Reuters Group. "So they are checking out this world of podcasts, social networks, webisodes, video blogs, and all the rest. Just like they did with episodic TV, many will get hooked by new options they never knew about."

The role of new media is at the heart of the strikers' demands, many observers note.

"It is quite ironic that the biggest beneficiary of the strike right now is the very thing they're striking over," says Jen Grogono, cofounder and chief content officer of ON Networks, an online video site based in Austin, Texas.

The strike has provided a window of opportunity for writers, a number of whom have approached her, looking for more satisfying creative work than writing quippy picket signs, she says. More than just another writing job, the site offers people a new creative challenge, she says.

"TV writers are accustomed to the tight restrictions of broadcast writing," says Ms. Grogono, "but they can try all sorts of new things online. There are no time or space restrictions here."

Exactly how much of a push this strike is giving to new media is somewhat anecdotal at this stage, say most observers. Move Networks, a leading provider of digital media publishing and delivery, says it is capturing more than 100,000 new, unique streaming viewers each day – but it was doing so at that pace before the strike began.

But Mr. Spencer of Wizzard Media attributes the 13 percent jump in podcast downloads from his site between Nov. 6 and 12, the week post-strike negotiations began, directly to the strike.

"We can't find any other reason," says Spencer. "There is a particularly large spike between 11:30 and 12:30 every night when people realize that [David] Letterman [with "The Late Show"] and [Jay] Leno [with "The Tonight Show"] are in reruns, and they want something different."

Spencer's brother, David, a Baltimore-based Spanish teacher who produces an educational podcast from his basement, suggests that new viewers of new media will find quality in that world – and that many may warm to it and never go back to conventional television programming.

"The digital media world online will benefit because people will be surprised at how much quality there is, how far the technology has come, and how much variety there is," says David Spencer.

The brothers add that the producers should take note: The two of them split the $7,200 that 200,000-plus viewers helped to generate in advertising sales this month.

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