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Living Through the Strike

October 22nd, 2007 | Jonathan Gray

writer.jpgWith 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?

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  1. justtv.wordpress.com
    October 22nd, 2007 at 19:07 | #1

    Oh my – I hadn’t considered that Daily Show/Colbert required writers! Oh the humanity…

    My guess is that game shows would be particularly benefited by the strike – Deal/No Deal is still a hit, and if the competition lessened from scripted shows, a lot of others could find an audience. So if you’re a B-list comedian, call your agent.

    I think the rerun idea is a no deal – most network license agreements stipulate only one or two reruns in a 1-year window. My guess is that ABC no longer has the rights to rerun anything but season 3 of Lost (if that). And to get those rights, they’d have to negotiate with both Touchstone (which they own) and Bad Robot, which they don’t & is owned by J.J. Abrams. Here’s where the whole issue becomes so fuzzy – on TV, writers are also producers, and often own one of the production companies credited with a show. So Abrams goes on strike as a WGA member, but does that make his company effectively on strike? Or is Bad Robot part of management by default? Where’s the line when writers are also bosses?

    My guess is that networks are going to avoid a strike, or only let it be short, as the business model is too fragile to risk turning the masses onto alternatives. But rich people protecting a dying business model are hard to predict, so who knows?

  2. October 22nd, 2007 at 20:14 | #2

    Ah yes, the limitations of reruns. I wasn’t thinking about that.

  3. October 23rd, 2007 at 16:30 | #3

    I’d agree with Jason that game shows would likely benefit. In addition, we may see more prime-time sporting events, like football or extreme games. Events like these can be used fill entire prime-time evenings.

    On the upside, a strike would give Colbert some time to focus on his presidential bid.

  4. October 25th, 2007 at 11:23 | #4

    Thanks Chad. As Jason wondered about rerun licensing, though, I also wonder about whether the networks have the rights to play these games. These days, sports licensing rights are multi-tiered, restricting broadcasters to a few specific games at specific times. That said, I did see that NBC was commissioning American Gladiators, so maybe that’d be their special weapon?

    As for Colbert, I dunno if you’ve seen, but there are serious concerns about Comedy Central violating all sorts of FEC rules should Colbert continue his run. While a severing of the ties between him and Comedy Central during the strike might seem to free him up to play around on YouTube, etc., I’d imagine he’d be considered a scab if he does that. FunnyorDie.com, for instance, isn’t going to be able to get new clips from their stars and star writers during the strike, even though they’re not even ad-supported at this point in time. So Gravel will likely be the best thing we have in the way of comic relief for the election ;-)

  5. October 28th, 2007 at 13:10 | #5

    Like Jason, it didn’t occur to me at first what this might mean for Jon Stweart and Stephen Colbert’s shows…I don’t guess they fall directly into your question about what happens to primetime, since technically they are “late night,” but the writers strike is going to be most detrimental for these shows without seasons. Are the folks who help write the monologues for late-night TV show hosts in the same boat? Where this strike will have the most damage, unforutnately for me and millions of other daytime fans, is for soap operas, though. These shows only take about a month or six weeks ahead at their most optimistic. The writer’s strike back in 1988 lasted six months I believe, and creative for a lot of shows were damaged. This time around, with audineces smaller and questions about the cost of putting on soap operas coming into play across the networks, the alternatives aren’t good. Either bad creative with scab writers runs more fans off, or else the soaps get replaced. If 1995 and the O.J. Simpson trial was any indication, getting fans out of the rhythm of keeping up with their “story” daily could be greatly damaging to getting them back into the routine, since the repetitiveness of soaps is among their greatest strengths as a narrative device.

    On the other hand, WWE is quite lucky. Dave Meltzer points out in The Wrestling Observer that the company has been lucky enough to not be governed by athletic commissions in many places because they are entertainment rather than sport, but they are designated as sports programming in official television terminology, which means the WGA strike won’t affect them because they are sports and not entertainment, or something like that. Back in 1988, WWE had “booking teams;” since then, they have moved to a full writing team, several of which may be WGA members. But apparently writing for the WWE would not be a violation for them, so WWE will be able to go on with their five hours of TV a week. The strike could actually be a boon for their programming, then, if the competition isn’t doing well, and if they could perhaps lure writers looking for work in the process…

  6. October 29th, 2007 at 20:28 | #6

    Thanks for this Sam. That damage to daytime could be sizeable, I agree. I’m happy for your sake that at least you might get WWE theme weeks on TV ;-)

  7. Joe
    October 29th, 2007 at 23:06 | #7

    We don’t need any more of that reality crap.

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