Living Through the Strike
With the possibility of a Writers Guild of America (WGA) strike becoming more and more a reality, especially after a hefty 90.3% strike authorization vote from WGA members, and given the rather nasty posturing from both sides, I started wondering what a network head should do if (when) the strike does indeed happen. Let’s consider some of the options for how to keep primetime running (though bear in mind that I’m not a lawyer, and don’t know what’s legal during strikes, so perhaps some of these are not kosher? Please tell me if they are).
1. Put on lots of reality shows. This would seem the obvious way to get lots of new shows without needing writers per se. Ever wanted to be in a reality show? Wander around Southern California on November 2nd and you might find a lot of casting going on. Or turn on the TV at 8pm on a weeknight in January and you may see Knitting with the Stars.
Pros: Because of the elongation of time that most reality shows introduce, turning two weeks of real time into three or four months of show, reality shows could be produced at relative speed. There are also a large number of shows already in the books, so the networks wouldn’t even need new concepts. If some of these catch on, they might even help the nets build up audiences for shows that they might want to use as summer fillers after the WGA’s back.
Cons: If, as Jason Mittell writes, television genres follow a cycle of innovation–imitation–saturation, a fair argument could be offered that we’re well into the saturation phase for reality shows, with many longtime favorites experiencing dips in ratings. Thus the industry might want to tread carefully: my suspicion is that three hours a night on all networks of endless reality shows could be the final spin cycle of saturation that finishes a lot of those shows off. Running that many shows could also test America’s supply of loud, annoying, and objectionable human beings.
2. Get serious about news journals like 60 Minutes, Dateline, 20/20, and so forth. Make them two hours long, and give them more money.
Pros: This is a pipedream, but it might be nice if networks actually gave a damn about investigative journalism (even if only by force). January will bring the beginning of the primaries, too, so there will be no shortage of national news. The nets might even be able to siphon some of the big bucks spent on fictional television into getting some decent international news going. Hollywood would likely balk at this suggestion, but if you look at countries that put news on and that do it seriously during primetime, their ratings aren’t horrible, and sometimes they’re high. Maybe people will actually start to like the news, if it’s actually any good.
Cons: Given the kind of news programming that Americans are usually offered, we can surmise that most network heads have little to no respect for their audience’s intelligence. So this seems an unlikely strategy. I also worry that because of this lack of respect, the two hour specials would just be on the history of the bikini, or bio pieces on Britney Spears.continued below the fold…3. Think longterm and try to cultivate audiences for your best serials. Do marathons of shows such as Lost, or Heroes.
Pros: Most people I know who didn’t start watching Lost in season one or the hiatus between seasons one and two, never did. They know that the barrier to entry in terms of narrative information required is too high for them now. So give them the chance. Give your fans a chance to revisit the shows without paying for the DVD, and try to pick up new audiences in the meantime.
Cons: This could eat into DVD sales.
4. Look overseas. As is, summertime often sees networks experimenting with playing Australia’s Next Top Model or so forth. And Hollywood has always ripped off foreign shows, so why not get the real deal instead?
Pros: America’s television trade is so imbalanced in favor of exports, it might be nice to start showing the country what the world has to offer. Should fandoms develop, maybe not the networks themselves, but their cable siblings could continue to play these shows for cheap (thereby also infusing foreign production centers with cash to make yet better shows).
Cons: I could see Hollywood being scared of this Pandora’s Box, knowing that they could ultimately be selling their audience away in the longterm. The American television industry is so fond of perpetuating the myth that the only good television is American television (or involves Rowan Atkinson or John Cleese), and such a strategy might challenge that myth.
5. Documentaries. Get thee a Burns brother and commission a ten-parter. If that’s WGA-covered (as it seems it might be), go to the public broadcasters of the world, and pay them to do it for you.
Pros: Well-financed documentaries are some of the best things on television. Blue Planet. Planet Earth. 7 Up. The Civil War. The networks could do these too. Some of the best ratings on television in England have been for the BBC’s signature documentaries, so this isn’t even a low-ratings solution. Meanwhile, if the doc is on a weighty topic, the network playing it can bask in the light of being socially responsible. Just as reality TV’s birth was partly born through a strike, maybe a birth of great docs in network primetime could be born this time?
Cons: As with option 2, this relies on networks having faith in their viewers to sit and watch, and I’m dubious regarding their capacity for faith.
6. Plain ol’ reruns and movies. 24/7 Law and Order, CSI: Miami, or Full House.
Pros: This is what the nets are familiar with, and I’m sure they’ll trust that this is what we‘re familiar with. Requires little work. Or, for a little innovation, borrow from VH1′s playbook and create list shows. “The Greatest 10 Episodes of [fill in the blank],” “Twenty Shows That Rocked the World,” and so forth.
Cons: But doesn’t this step on your affiliates toes, since they’re the prime market for reruns? Maybe this isn’t a problem for the Owned and Operated affiliates? It also risks hurting potential rerun hits prematurely through overkill.
Of course, a combination of the above could be used, and likely will need to be used. Television needn’t have new fictional programming to live, after all. Time will tell whether the networks can think on their feet, though, or whether creative thinking in television really is a writer’s job. If the networks can’t handle creativity, I fear I’ll need to start stocking up a nuclear bunker-like supply of shows I want to see but haven’t. Maybe I’ll finally have a chance to watch Battlestar Galactica?
The nuclear winter really will begin, though, if come January and the primaries, American television is without The Daily Show. Maybe we could have TDS declared an essential service, and therefore a strike exception?Tags: strike, WGA