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Credits and residuals on Battlestar Galactica webisodes

I had heard rumours that there was some dispute over the Battlestar Galactica webisodes. Even without knowing the details I knew they had to do with money, and this article confirms it.

NBC Universal, Sci Fi Channel's parent corporation, refuses to pay residuals on these episodes, nor to credit the writers, as Newsweek (also owned by NBC Universal) reveals, arguing that these are promotional items. The WGA (PDF document) feels otherwise, as does Ronald Moore who earlier had taken pains in one of his blog entries to list all those involved in their creation, classily without hinting at the behind-the-scenes strife at the time.

Gloves now of course are off, with Moore refusing to deliver more webisodes, and NBC suing the WGA for having "unlawfully pressured producers not to perform".

While I have no doubt that the primary reason for Resistance's creation was marketing, there is also no doubt that the form of this marketing crossed over into unambiguously creative realms. This is not to say that advertising copywriters and art directors aren't creative, but I'm using the term in a more specific sense, of creating narrative fiction with characters, plot, conflict and no overt "buy this product" message. (The negotiated definition of "promotional" is also why a lot of DVD extras are broken into sub-X-minute "featurettes" when they could clearly have been run back to back. Performers are entitled to be paid extra when appearing in longer pieces.)

I can understand that it would be difficult to credit dozens of cast, crew and creatives in a two minute short. And in fact, I've often wondered if it's really necessary to credit the third assistant second unit director's gopher in films, not to mention the driver, the caterer and caterer's driver. But surely a simple, discreet link to a website at the bottom of the webisode logo to allow those of us interested in knowing who wrote, directed, designed and played the works to find out should be sufficient?

As for residuals - there is a hierarchy even in the WGA's Minimum Basic Agreement - movies pay more than short-forms, free-to-air TV more than basic cable, and so forth. So I can understand that even ten two-minute instalments should not receive the same payment as a 42 minute episode, all other things - such as audience reach - being equal. However, if the principle for ongoing compensation for creating a story or a character or a production design holds true across all these established media - theatrical features, television, radio and so forth - then without a doubt the principle must also hold true for internet, mobile and other modern distribution channels. The nature of the output does not change the nature of the input.

NBC Universal refusing to acknowledge this self-evident truth (assuming I have not inadvertently misrepresented their position is) is a blatant attempt to alter the remuneration paradigm. Sort of how telcos moved from a charge-per-call model to charge-per-minute when mobile phones were introduced. The underlying cost dynamics were the same, but the revenue model allowed a dramatically increased upside.

Similarly, the underlying cost of producing a show for internet distribution is fundamentally the same as for film or TV - you still need sets, actors, writers and so forth. But by changing the rules on residual payments the studios are attempting to drive a wedge between what the writers (and others) get, and what they - the studios - keep, a gap that will get substantially wider as the net takes off as a distribution channel.

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This page contains a single entry from the blog posted on October 19, 2006 8:59 AM.

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