Sunday, July 13, 2008

Why the Screen Actors Guild should go on strike

California Governor and Screen Actors Guild member Arnold Schwarzenegger offered Friday to mediate the contract dispute between motion picture and television producers and the Screen Actors Guild. He said he's waiting to be asked, but neither side has contacted him.

We might as well tell you that America Wants To Know is the daughter of an actor, the late Dave Shelley (1931-1989), and for a lot of reasons, the prospect of a Screen Actors Guild strike makes us really, really sad.

Actors' strikes are not like other strikes. Actors can stay on strike for a horrifyingly long time because most of them are not giving up their sole paycheck. Even though they can't perform in TV shows and movies, they can still work under their commercials contract; they can do regional theater under their Actors Equity contract; and they can collect residuals for TV reruns, payments that were won for them by earlier generations of striking actors.

So they can carry those picket signs in front of 20th Century Fox until half the studio employees in Hollywood join Ed McMahon in foreclosure proceedings.

And they might.

The kind of people who give up on longshot goals have already gotten out of show business.

Still, the prospect of the Screen Actors Guild going on strike for residuals from Internet use is particularly depressing.

As we wrote when the Writers Guild walked out on strike, the Internet is not quite the pot of gold that everyone expected.

Anyone in the newspaper business or the music industry can tell you the miserable truth about the Internet: Everybody using it wants everything uninterrupted and free, and they'll click right over to anybody who gives it to them. There's no habit. There's no loyalty. There's no geographic or national boundary. And there's certainly no need to get up out of the chair and cross the room to change the TV channel. The era of the captive audience is over.

But there's still the rosy projection, the perfect math of multiplying the total number of Internet users by the tiny little fraction who would have to click on or watch an ad in order to generate millions or billions of dollars.

Here's the trouble with perfect math: Sometimes nobody clicks and nobody watches.

So we'd like to suggest to our longtime friends at the Screen Actors Guild that they throw away the idea of residuals for Internet use and instead fight for a provision in the standard contract for a lump-sum upfront payment to cover anything the studios ever do with that performance online.

"What? After the way they screwed us on network shows that went into syndication? Do you know how much money Barbara Eden didn't make on 'I Dream of Jeannie?'"

Yes. Yes, we do.

We also know what some of those hard-won residual checks really look like.

This is a picture of America Wants to Know's dad with Loni Anderson and the future governor of California in the 1980 TV movie, The Jayne Mansfield Story:

Really, that's the governor:

Here's Dave Shelley with Farrah Fawcett and Robert Stack in the 1975 TV movie, Murder on Flight 502:

And with Tom Bosley in the 1979 TV movie, The Triangle Factory Fire:

And with Angie Dickinson in the 1982 TV series, Cassie & Co.:

We can't even imagine how much money the studios and production companies have spent on accounting and payroll services to send out the hundreds of thousands of residual checks for movies and TV shows run on cable and in syndication or sold on home video.

Residuals are forever, but as time goes on, the payments get lower and lower. Occasionally the price of the first-class postage is more than the amount of the check.

Yet the expense of the bookkeeping must be tremendous. And as complex as it is to track every airing of every show on every worldwide broadcast and cable outlet, the intricacies of tracking Internet viewing might make cable and syndication look like mud pies in the backyard.

America Wants To Know would be willing to bet that the studios are more reluctant to agree to the bookkeeping than they are to the payments.

So if the Screen Actors Guild is going to walk out on strike, we hope they do it to get actors a meaningful upfront payment for Internet rights to their performances, and not to win some hypothetical trickle of residual payments from a medium that has yet to demonstrate any real earning power for anybody on it who's not a porn star or a poker table.

We wish the Guild good luck in its contract negotiations. Actors are indispensable, and it's always nice to see Hollywood forced to recognize it.

Copyright 2008

Editor's note: Susan Shelley wrote a history of the Screen Actors Guild's successful 1978 commercials strike, which can be read online at