NEW YORK The last time the Writers Guild of America went on strike, restless viewers turned to cable, sending the category into a growth spurt that continues to this day.
With a writers strike looking increasingly likely, the question looming over digital Hollywood is: Can the Web become the cable of 2007?
The answer might be as murky as the politics of the strike itself.
Creators may be drawn to the Web as other avenues are sealed off. While strike rules at the moment seem to limit writers' latitude, some television veterans are calling for a rethinking of writers' relationships with online platforms.
"There is an opportunity, if there is a protracted strike, to create channels of development on the Internet that are outside the big companies, and I wonder if the guilds are thinking about that," said Marshall Herskovitz, the veteran TV creator behind "Quarterlife," the television-style drama that will air exclusively online.
In a prolonged stoppage, new-media experts say, viewers certainly will be looking for alternative platforms, and initial traffic numbers could be expected to spike. Such sites as Revver, DailyMotion, GoFish and My Damn Channel could become the TNTs and HBOs of today—unknown before the strike, a part of life after it.
"Viewers have already been watching on the Web, writers are writing for the Web, and networks are looking for programming on the Web," said an exec at one online-content site. "The strike will speed all of that up."
As NBC Universal chief Jeff Zucker warned this week, a strike could be a "watershed event" that "drives more people away from primetime."
But to keep those viewers, Web sites will have to offer content that consumers feel improves on the reruns and low-cost programming on the air.
And that might be the tricky part.
Online content sites and the agents who sell to them are seeking to stake out a delicate strike position. They hope to capitalize on the immense opportunities the strike offers.
But they also want to preserve relationships that could be more critical in the long term; if agents and sites are seen as too aggressive, they could jeopardize their standing with the WGA, and future deals along with it. That means a conservatism when it comes to signing new deals.
The latest strike rules from the WGA make clear that the guild will consider writing for Web sites a violation of strike rules. Members who do so could be penalized, and those who aren't yet members could be prevented from ever joining the guild.
Still, there may be more wiggle room than those rules indicate. The WGA reportedly has told some members which Web sites are considered signatory companies and which ones aren't, potentially loosening the work rules for the latter firms.
And it's an open question whether the WGA's restrictions are posturing or policy. "The purpose of the rules is different for the two weeks leading up to a strike than it might be three months into a strike," Herskovitz said. "All along the guilds have been a bit overwhelmed by Internet production and at the same time winking at it because it's too small and too invisible to be worth policing."
The real fear for the WGA may not be that writers pen material for the Internet—it's that such material will find its way onto network airwaves.
So far, the WGA restrictions haven't stopped some sites from mapping out a plan to seek out creators.
"We think the strike will give us many more opportunities to sign new talent in the coming weeks and months," said Rob Barnett, the former MTV exec who now runs original-content site My Damn Channel, which features series from The Ten director David Wain and The Simpsons veteran Harry Shearer. "The dark times for old media are definitely good times for new media."
And unlike a more binary split on television, the Web is home to content that crosses genres, which might leave room for many creators. "This is much grayer than the rules on television," one agent said. "If I'm a man on the street asking funny questions and getting goofy responses, is that considered written or not?"
Agents said younger writers who are hungry to work have been talking to them about finding work on the sites, WGA rules be damned.
Revver's Angela Gyetvan said that the site "welcomes an increase" of viewers and creators if a strike takes hold. But she expressed concerns that the rules could tie the site's hands as much as it did the networks.
The original content sites connected to networks (notably Viacom new-media properties such as AtomFilms and News Corp.'s MySpace) find themselves in a double bind: Not only do they have the relationships to manage, but they also need to fight the perception that they're simply extensions of the same networks showing recycled content.
Agents expressed hope that the WGA would loosen some rules, both to win goodwill for members and encourage alternative platforms to increase their leverage in negotiations with producers.
If they do, the Web might become the cable of the future; if they resist, Web content might look no better or more appealing than the cable networks of yesterday—or today.