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Weighing the Proposed Writers' Deal


Online opportunities and income are driving two news stories this morning. There's Microsoft's $44 billion buyout offer for Yahoo, an offer that Yahoo today formally rejected. That story in a few minutes.

First, it looks like a rap for the months-long strike between the Writers Guild of American and the studios. Still, the strike's real trouble spot, future revenues from streaming shows over the Web, remains largely unresolved, as NPR's Kim Masters reports.

KIM MASTERS: At a briefing on the deal in Los Angeles on Saturday night, members of the Writers Guild showed support for their leaders with repeated and enthusiastic applause. The might not have gotten everything they wanted, but they did make gains and they were ready to declare victory. Toni Kawin(ph) has written for an acted in "The Sopranos."

Ms. TONI KAWIN (Writer-Actor): I think the mood is great. I think everybody is dying to get back to work and we've been so solid and so together and we're strong and proud.

Ms. MARA BROCK AKIL (Writer): Everybody was very supportive of our leadership and realize that we didn't get everything we wanted, but I think it's good enough for us to be pleased and move forward with the best of intentions.

MASTERS: That's Mara Brock Akil, a writer whose credits include the sitcom "Girlfriends." Many writers acknowledged that they weren't exactly sure what's in the deal. The broad strokes were sent to union members only hours before the meeting, and the agreement is complex. Russel Friend is a writer-producer on "House M.D."

Mr. RUSSEL FRIEND (Writer-Producer): I'm a little confused, but happy that I think it's over.

MASTERS: In fact, a great many writers believe they had won a big concession on a major sticking point, getting a percentage of ad revenue from programs that are streamed over the Internet. For example, an episode of "The Office" that is streamed along with commercials that produce money for the studios. Writer Mara Brock Akil.

Ms. AKIL: We were at zero four months ago and today we came out of it with some percentages, so when they make money we make money. And it's just fair.

MASTERS: But, in fact, that percentage is not really what's in the deal, according the entertainment lawyer Jonathan Handel.

Mr. JONATHAN HANDEL (Entertainment Attorney): What they got was a formula that appeared at first glance to give them that, but when you take a closer look, it actually says, you know what, we're just gonna treat this as though the network's revenue was a fixed amount.

MASTERS: So instead of figuring out how much money the studio makes from a particular show and giving the writer a percentage of it, the contract assumes that any streamed show will make $40,000 no matter how much the studio actually gets from commercials. That translates into a fixed payment of a few hundred dollars for the writer.

Mr. HANDEL: But they've set the contract language up so they may gain some improvements next time around three years from now.

MASTERS: That's when the union will negotiate a new deal. And by then the Writer's Guild will presumably have benefited from another provision in this contract. The union will be able to look at the studio's books and figure out how much they really are making from those streamed shows, an issue that has been the subject of a lot of argument with very little solid information from the studios until now. And Handel says there are other victories for writers. They roughly doubled their payment for T.V. shows and movies that are sold through downloads. And the union got jurisdiction over new material created specifically for the Internet.

Mr. HANDEL: And that's big, because that's an area that's gonna be growing in the future, and the writers had no jurisdiction over that area prior to this new agreement.

MASTERS: Clearly most writers felt they had made big strides and most were relieved. A settlement means that some of the current television season can be saved. Had the Guild failed to settle, writers said the strike could have lasted into the fall and still produced no real gains. Russel Friend, the writer and producer from "House," said the writers were concerned not just for themselves, but for the cast and crew of television shows that have been shut down.

Mr. FRIEND: We have at least 200 people working on our show and that's one show. And you multiply that by all the shows. That's thousands of people who are put out of work for all of this time.

MASTERS: The writers have a couple of weeks to formally approve the contract, but they could return to work as soon as Wednesday. Scripted shows should be returning to the air within a few weeks.

Kim Masters, NPR News. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

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Kim Masters
Kim Masters covers the business of entertainment for NPR News. Her reports can be heard on NPR's award-winning Morning Edition, All Things Considered, and Weekend Edition. She joined NPR in 2003.