SAG follows the path blazed by the UAW

The Screen Actors Guild (SAG) is starting a fight over union rules as they apply to Internet-only productions. If they win, they are likely to shift even more content creation opportunities away from major studios in a futile attempt to hinder evolution in a market changed dramatically by technology.

According to a recent article on Betanews, the Screen Actor's Guild (SAG) is angling for a fight over union rules as they apply to Internet-only productions. Media created exclusively for distribution over the Internet would have to follow the same union rules as applies to bigger productions, regardless of revenue streams expected from them.

SAG proponents would likely argue that they are trying to bring union protections to a fast-growing segment of media production that currently lacks them. If you accept the premise that SAG protections are important for actors working in the industry (and I question that, to be sure, noting that the overwhelming majority of SAG members aren't full-time actors), then union-won rights must be defended at all costs.

Union life, for some, IS good...assuming you can get into one in the first place. But, by raising costs on Internet productions, SAG makes major studios (the group most often bound by union rules) less likely to bother with Internet-only productions. This benefits the unions, as the Internet, in my opinion, poses the same kind of threat to traditional film production that it poses to traditional newspapers. By lowering the barrier to entry, it brings in new competitors who, by their very nature, offer content at lower cost than the incumbents.

Unfortunately, this is an instance of cutting your nose to spite your face. Hollywood's union-inspired cost structure is really only affordable to major studios. If major studios see less reason to get involved in the Internet due to higher costs, that means studios are less likely to play a strong role in Internet content. That, in the medium term, could be dangerous for unions. It leaves the field to non-union productions.  As the Internet grows in popularity as a conduit for media, it creates opportunities for new companies not wedded to antiquated union cost structures. Costs for these companies will be much less than exists for studios, and though unions have managed to monopolize most of the talent, technology is working to make the skills necessary to create professional-looking media even easier to acquire. The promise of working in the fastest-growing segment of media is a sufficient attractor to stray from the union fold, in my opinion.

Unions are also blocking an evolution towards a media environment that has a lot more participants than the one that existed before. The demand for people capable of making new kinds of media only grows as the avenues of distribution multiply. Typical TVs now have access to hundreds of channels of content. More cultures now find media production within reach than ever before. Content is proliferating, and large productions are only a small part of the whole.

What the industry needs is a much looser structure composed of smaller companies capable of targeting smaller niches. Instead, SAG is acting like airline pilots who benefited from a per-head compensation structure that might have made sense in the smaller planes of the 1950s, but resulted in $300,000+ salaries as airplanes grew in capacity. That's a cost structure that was defended, once again, by unions.

The last time I said negative things about Hollywood unions, a talkback respondent claimed that I was just expressing anti-union bias. Perhaps I am, so long as it is understood that bias is often the result of years considering the "pros" and "cons" of an issue. I can't, however, understand how anyone can look to the economic catastrophe unfolding in Detroit, as all three major American car companies face imminent bankruptcy, and think that unions have much to offer to our modern economy.

Unions are an economic boat anchor that blocks change. In this fast-moving global economy, we can ill afford such inflexibility.


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