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Weathering the writer’s strike

by Dave Roberts

A lot of us are still in denial about the writer’s strike. The only shows to go into repeats so far are the daily talk shows: Leno, Letterman, Conan, Jon Stewart, etc. Half of us go to bed around then anyway. We haven’t quite begun to feel the effects.

But when we’re left with cliffhangers that won’t be resolved in the foreseeable future, things are going to get ugly fast. I’ve already boarded up my windows and stocked up on canned goods in preparation for the inevitable riots. I’m even considering buying a gun, just in case. That way, when the TV-junkies, twitching from withdrawal, try to break in for my stash of “Friends” DVDs, I’ll be ready.

My overly sarcastic point, of course, is that this is not the end of the world for anybody. What baffles me is why people who aren’t directly involved are getting so worked up about it. A sampling of the message boards at sites like aintitcoolnews.com and Television Without Pity, which tend to be belligerent to begin with, have exploded in the kind of heated rhetoric normally reserved for abortion clinic protests. People are angry, and the strangest part is how misdirected a lot of that anger is.

Obviously as a writer I’m biased in this. While I’ve never written professionally for TV or film, like most writers I have half a dozen scripts and teleplays percolating either in my head or on my laptop, so I’m inclined to support the creative types in their battles with the suits, both out of identification and the hope that, should I ever work in that industry, I can look forward to being sufficiently compensated for it.

Beyond that, charges of greed on the part of writers seem bizarrely unfounded. Yes, some writers in the guild (roughly 3 to 5 percent) earn an upwards of six figures a year. The vast majority, on the other hand, make a living wage comparable to most Americans, the difference being that the work is guaranteed not to be steady, with most jobs lasting less than a year.

Often coupled with this argument is the misconception that the job itself is insanely easy – why, anyone could write TV shows. I often wonder why people who claim to believe writing is a well-paid life of leisure are still toiling away in an office cubicle or working road crew if they know there’s an easy meal ticket waiting out there in Hollywood.

Pundits (both the on-air and water-cooler varieties) who are quick to condemn unions as shakedown organizations, besides being ignorant of the history of worker’s rights in this country, are fundamentally mistaken about the unique nature of creative employment. Very few products have the potential for retained value that an artist’s work does. Because of this quality, it creates very strange working conditions. If a TV program is sufficiently entertaining that it can draw the same amount of ratings in reruns as original shows, as is often the case with daytime children’s cartoons, it makes perfect financial sense for a studio to simply cease production and air the reruns rather than continue to pay for new episodes. This creates the bizarre situation where it is in the writer’s interest to create a lower quality product, one that doesn’t hold up as well to repeated viewings. This is bad – for the networks, for the viewers whose time is wasted on middling fare and for the artist’s sense of personal satisfaction. Residuals, therefore, are in everyone’s interest, because everyone has a stake in the long-term success of the show. The attempts by the studios to deny writers a share in the residuals from the new media of the internet and DVD sales amount to little more than chicanery.

Ultimately however, while I hope the writers get what they’re asking for and can enjoy a greater share of the billions of dollars they’re making for the studios, I’m entirely content to let the strike stretch on for months, even years. If people can be weaned off of television – and it’s going to make a lot of us pretty cranky at first – and start finding alternate forms of entertainment (preferably those that involve getting up off the couch and moving around), not only will we be healthier, physically, mentally and culturally, but when narrative shows go back into production, hopefully they’ll have to be more engaging, more intellectually stimulating in order to compete with the visceral experiences of real life: the adrenaline of pick-up basketball, the subtle give-and-take of a political debate, the intensity of a poker game.

Wishful thinking, no doubt, as the nature of TV’s flickering light has a disturbing hypnotic effect on the human brain, and some people will watch anything. But the rest of us will hopefully take advantage of this crisitunity (to use a term a TV writer gave us) to grow as human beings. Happy living.

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