"Writers are trafficking in their own daydreams for a living. But some who get on a sitcom for three or four years may think they're going to be able to live on that kind of income for the rest of their lives and that's a mistake," said screenwriter and UCLA professor Richard Walter.
"Back when 'The Cosby Show' was the No. 1 show on TV, one in every four families in the country watched it," said Walter, "Now the highest-rated show is only seen by half as many." Writers' work, he explained, appears on many more outlets today such as cable channels, DVDs and The Internet so the revenue pie is cut into many more pieces than before.
And that is what this strike is all about — the new technologies that writers want to be sure they are going to be included in as profit sharers. They want residual payments for when their work appears on all media, old and new.
"Residuals only started in 1962. The writers for 'I Love Lucy' in the '50s which has been shown on television ever since never got an extra dime," said Walter, making the point that the writers have had to work hard to gain what they have.
With this strike the union has shown that it is resolved to fight this time. Walter was at the strike meeting last week attended by thousands of WGA members. It reminded him of a line from the movie "Network."
"I thought to myself this is us saying, 'we're mad as hell and we're not going to take it anymore.'"
But it's a resolve tempered by realism. "We're all starting in the same place together. I hope we all finish in the same place, too," said Mazin, but then he mentioned the two words that scare him the most — "American Idol, a reality show with no union writers.
While the writers are not working there will be other options on television and elsewhere, and for the writer of "Scary Movie" this is a scary thought. In fact after the last strike in '88 nearly 10 percent of Americans failed to tune back in to network TV.
"Writers provide a beloved service," Mazin said, "not an essential one."
Young was even more tongue in cheek. "One of the things I liked most about being a writer was that there was fresh fruit every day in my office," he said. "One of the lessons I learned as a writer was that fruit is perishable."