Thursday, June 12, 2008

Getting Paid for Content

A post I made to the Doculink listserve got a bit garbled, so I'm revising it here. There was a discussion about Current TV relying heavily on user-generated content, holding out the promise to "have your voice broadcast in 51 million homes in the US." It appears that some completed productions are rewarded after the fact (i.e., the filmmaker assumes all upfront costs and risk, on the chance of getting some pay later). But other programming offers no payment at all. The "make TV in <10 minutes" solicitation, for example, says, "We generally don't pay for these (look for those that do) but they're the easiest way to TV! "

If this were an issue at this one site, it would be one thing. But it's a problem across the new media landscape, and it's mirrored by a growing problem within more traditional cable and broadcasting venues as well. Independent producers creating works for hire for television (virtually all documentary programming is outsourced) face ever-shrinking budgets and schedules. They're expected to bear not only the cost of self-employment but also the burden of production insurance, overhead, licensing fees and more.

And then, as independents working on their own films, as many are, these same producers may find that they have no choice but to ask others to accept minimal or deferred salaries, because what little money they've earned as freelancers or raised from funders has to go to equipment , licensing, and other "unavoidable" expenses: it costs money to make documentaries.

And so the cycle continues, and the sense that the content creators can and even should be the last paid (if at all) becomes ingrained.

But here's the thing: This is not a low-earning industry. The revenue just goes to more prioritized areas. How many of the advertisers, marketers, lawyers, salespeople, and executives working in broadcast and cable venues would be willing to forego living wages and benefits for the sake of working in television? According to today's Washington Post, Discovery's new CEO, David Zaslav, was paid more than $18 million in 2007. Chairman Jon Hendriks was paid in excess of $30 million. Isn't the thrill of bringing nonfiction media to 1.5 billion cumulative subscribers around the world enough? And Current TV, founded only in 2002, has yet to make a profit, according to the Financial Times, but founder Al Gore earned $1 million from the company in 2007.

Some documentaries can be made inexpensively. But many cannot; their subject matters and complexity require time and skill if they are to be meaningfully researched, with innovative, relevant, and up-to-date content. It takes additional time and skill to tell these stories both effectively and ethically; to find drama within the story, and not simply warn of sharks around every corner. All of this requires that the content creators -- the filmmakers -- have sufficient resources. That they, too, earn a reasonable living in the ever-expanding media marketplace. In fact, most can't; the number of talented, senior producers leaving the field is disheartening, or at least it should be.

In a speech made fifty years ago, reporter Edward R. Murrow warned about the danger that excess commercialism posed to a medium that had tremendous potential: "This instrument can teach, it can illuminate; yes, and it can even inspire. But it can do so only to the extent that humans are determined to use it to those ends. Otherwise it is merely wires and lights in a box. There is a great and perhaps decisive battle to be fought against ignorance, intolerance and indifference. This weapon of television could be useful."

Fifty years later, with a multitude of channels and media outlets Murrow couldn't possibly have imagined, the potential remains. But only if those creating meaningful content are given the resources they truly need to do the job. It's up to us as documentary creators to insist on being paid fairly for our work, and to do a better job of educating audiences, teachers, and policy makers about the work we do--and what it takes to do it well.

And to those tempted to uplink documentary material for free, I'll end with a reference to an opinion piece in The New York Times by computer scientist Jaron Lanier: "Pay Me for My Content." There's got to be a way.