But first . . .


(Thanks, Alan.)

19-cent cheques leave writers wanting change
by Ken Levine
Special to the Toronto Star

I got a check recently from American Airlines. A royalty check. For the past several years as part of their “inflight entertainment” American Airlines has been showing episodes of Cheers, M*A*S*H and Becker that I wrote along with episodes of Everybody Loves Raymond, Frasier and Dharma & Greg that I directed. Considering the number of flights and years I’d estimate they’ve shown my shows 10,000 times. My compensation for that: $0.19. That’s right – 19 cents (American, so it’s even less in Canada.) I figure at that rate, in 147 years I’ll be able to buy one of their snack boxes.

An episode of Frasier I wrote is out on DVD. I make nothing. The script is included in a book. I make zilch. Soon you’ll be able to download and watch it on your iPod or iPhone at IHOP. The only one who won’t make money is “i”.

Are you sensing a pattern?

The Writers Guild of America is asking the mega-corporations that own the entertainment industry in America and the galaxy to compensate its members fairly for this highly desired product they create. Just a piece, that’s all. More than nothing. And without sounding greedy, more than nineteen cents.

Via-Uni-Time-Corps-Ney would rather have a strike.

I’ve been through three of them already. Many of the companies I struck are no longer in business. Two-thirds of the people I struck with are no longer in the guild. And unlike actors and directors, when we go out it doesn’t just shut down the industry. It slows it. Hair restoration crèmes have faster results.

But as someone who has prospered and enjoyed the gains writers before me have won, I feel it’s my obligation to fight the good fight for the next generation. And hopefully in 20 years, when the issue is holograms transmitted directly to the back of viewers’ eyelids, WGA members will hang tough for a piece of that pie.

This acrimony between writers and management has been a proud tradition since the 1930s when scribes first rose up and had the audacity to … well, ask for things. Warner Brothers czar Jack Warner warned that any writer who joined the union would “find themselves out of work forever.” And he claimed this wasn’t blacklisting because “it would all be done over the telephone.” Darryl Zanuck of 20th Century Fox once shouted, “Throw that writer off the lot until I need him again!” Critic David Thomson says Hollywood writers are like divorce lawyers or private eyes. When you want them you have to have them, but later you despise them.

Is it any wonder we “schmucks with Underwoods” have an inferiority complex and assume a defensive posture? We spend our entire careers trying to protect our work from meddling studios, directors, actors, fellow writers, research gurus, networks, and girlfriends of all of the above.

Yes, we’re an angry bunch, a self-righteous bunch, but we make 19 cents from American Airlines when management flies in private jets.

I teach a seminar called The Sitcom Room (sitcomroom.com). It’s a fun weekend where I simulate the experience of actually being on the writing staff of a network show. Students rewrite scripts, have real actors perform their work, and learn first hand the realities of the business – little sleep, bad Chinese food, notes. But they eagerly participate, because they love the process, they have a need to express themselves, they want to be heard. Not one has said they want to be a TV writer to make money.

And when they finally do enter the industry, who knows what that industry will be? New delivery systems are emerging so rapidly that even the “unthinkable” was obsolete five minutes ago. These young writers will embrace that future, and through their vision and zeal will make it soar. All they’re asking for is their fair share. MyPiece, not MySpace. iShare, not iTunes. NetWorth, not NetFlix.

And now . . .


It seems obvious.  Who cares whether we’re 100% certain that smoking causes lung cancer?  Even if we only suspect it, shouldn’t we stop promoting it to children?  But no, said the tobacco industry successfully for decades, the facts were not in.

Similarly – who cares whether we’re 100% certain that we’re poisoning our planet and headed for catastrophic climate destabilization?  Even if we’re only 20% sure, shouldn’t we do all we can to clean things up and burn less fuel?

Especially when so much of what we’d need to do – like replacing our lightbulbs and driving more fuel-efficient vehicles – would cost us less, not more, and increase our national security?

It astounds me that there are still people on the other side of this issue.  So for them, here’s an engaging nine-minute video that takes a very simple point (above) and dresses it up as a matrix and complicates it to make it look profound.  (The guy is presumably a management consultant.)  And I say: great.  Whatever rocks your boat.  One way or another, it seems to me, everyone needs to find his way to this conclusion.  (And, yes, Bjorn Lomborg, we should do the smart, high-impact things first.  Of course.  But we’ve barely begun doing even those.)

Oh – and here’s the same guy doing it with hats.  (Turns out he’s a science teacher, not a management consultant.)


Last Thursday I posted this sobering link and promised to ask my guru for reassurance.  He responded:

“Seems like more of the same to me – uninformed, unbalanced, highly biased, ‘stirring of the pot.’  Most of the Attorney General attention (Mr. Cuomo is a very busy  guy; not sure what he is accomplishing other than building his own profile) as well as the Kennedy ‘Sunshine Act’ has been focused on the ‘school’ channel, where schools act as financial aid intermediaries with different lenders. Most of the issues identified have to do with schools taking a real or perceived kickback from lending institutions in return for advantaged loan flow.  The vast majority of this activity is in the federally-guaranteed loan arena, which is not where FMD plays.

“Where FMD competes (80%+ direct to consumer, 95% private, non-federally guaranteed), they are in an advantaged position.  Also, the recent federal legislation substantially degrades the profitability of the guaranteed business, making private loans relatively more attractive.  If banks want to stay in the student loan business, they will need to go increasingly private; and if they do, they will need FMD’s expertise.  This is all VERY positive for FMD, unless there is some shoe out there about to drop which is not yet visible.

“As far as Senator Dodd is concerned, he is getting generous and frequent contributions from all financial services companies, given his committee chairmanship.  And chairman Dodd is not shy about asking for support.  The blog you linked to neglected to mention that, which demonstrates incredible naiveté, or else a deliberate attempt to distort the facts.  As far as the stepped up frequency of FMD political contributions – four years ago they were hardly large enough or established enough to try to influence federal legislation and regulatory policy.  Now they are a recognized leader in an important market.  I would be concerned if FMD were not trying to influence the development of responsible policy.

“All of the above does not mean that FMD has no risk associated with it, however.  In my view, the single biggest risk remains consistent and profitable access to the securitization markets.  Right now risk premiums are very wide, potentially weakening FMD upfront securitization margins.  The other perceived risk is the valuation of the residual values on the balance sheet.  In my opinion, this should be resolved favorably for FMD by mid 2008 when the residuals start to contribute to quarterly earnings (and importantly, cash flow).

“Meanwhile, FMD remains an early stage, high growth company that that has significant share and distinctive capabilities in a large and fast growing market; has around $300 million in cash; pays a current (and rapidly increasing) dividend of 3%; sports a P/E of around 6 and a PEG ratio of less than 0.2 (according to Yahoo).”

Tomorrow: Jim Hightower and Your Comments on Mint.com


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