Saturday, December 01, 2007

WGA: Suckas

Soundtrack: Black Flag- "TV Party"

Here are the last ten events recorded on my TiVo:

College Football, Sat 12/1
Crash (1996) , Sat 12/1
Inside the NBA, Fri 11/30
Friday Night Lights, Fri 11/30
Inside the NFL, Fri 11/30
Project Runway, Wed 11/28 [no homo]
Chuck, Mon 11/26
New Jack City, Mon 11/26
NFL Football , Sun 11/25
Inside the NFL, Fri 11/23

Normally, there would be new episodes of "South Park," "Scrubs," "The Office"--hell, I even watch "Saturday Night Live." But since we're knee deep in the Writers' Guild of America Strike, most of my free time is spent watching Dan Marino tell me how good Towam Brady is. That, and watching "Project Runway" with Wifey. (Steven is my favorite so far. He's the only one whose clothes seem to have a signature craftsmanship, with fluid movement and detailed proportion. But it's very early.)

The only scripted shows that can continue to run are those whose scripts are already finished and approved, which thankfully includes the remainder of the first season of "Chuck," the best new show of the year, and a couple more "Friday Night Lights," which could end any week without me ever finding out what happened to my boy Landry and his self-defense killing. Very frustrating.

If you aren't aware, the reasons for the WGA strike are rooted in New Media, and the fact that the writers get none of the profits from the lucrative sales of series' DVDs or from the nebulous world of networks offering episodes on their websites, iTunes, cell phones, etc. In addition, many networks are now encouraging webisodes or DVD-only original material, which the writers have to spend just as much time on but often get paid nothing for. On top of that, reality TV writers often work hours just as long as the writers of scripted shows, but they are not protected by the producers in the same ways that other members of the WGA are. In fact, the charming writers of "The Office" lay things out pretty clearly here:

This development is the tipping point of what has been one of the most encouraging entertainment trends of the past decade: television getting more complex and artistically relevant through the rise of serialized episodes. As the aughts began, shows such as "The Sopranos" and "24" pushed the envelope of TV convention, not only by having episodes develop in real-time and depend precariously upon one another, but also by referencing events that happened episodes, even seasons, before. This phenomenon is documented in Steven Johnson's fantastic book Everything Bad Is Good for You. Of course, these creative advancements in TV rose alongside technical advancements in the ways we could consume TV; namely iTunes, DVDs, streaming video, torrents, and especially the TiVo I mentioned above. The rise of serialized TV necessitated exactly the new technologies that are under dispute. In a very real way, by being so creative, the writers damned themselves into being punished by their own innovation.

Supposedly, a resolution is in the works; but if the last strike of 1988, which continued for five months, is any indication, we could be well into January until writers can craft original material, which would mean that new seasons of "Lost" and "24"--ironically two of the shows most responsible for ushering us into this new era of narrative sophistication--would not air. If this is the case, the prevailing notion is that networks will heap new programming on us in the form of game shows, clip shows, and reality TV. In fact, CBS has already pushed up this season of "Survivor." Another mark of the fallout would be that "American Idol" would have a larger cultural impact than ever before, which is downright scary.

You know, she's well into her sixties, but I think I might still smash.

What culture critics are supposed to project, however, is what will happen when the strike comes to an end, whenever that may be. What will happen--in this culture critic's opinion--is some version of extremes. Either the networks will cut their losses and grant more creative freedom now that the writers have a piece of the New Media pie, or they will become wary of shows that require any extra effort on their part. Say hello to traditional sitcoms and "MacGyver"-type shows in which every episode can stand--and be sold--alone. It's quite possible that networks will wind up their Lorenzo Lamas in "Renegade"-self-contained-two-recurring-characters clocks and let them run. They will be barons of a barren entertainment landscape.

By being creative and changing our ideas of what television could be capable of, the writers have sealed their own fate. This decade of TV, through the shows mentioned above, "Curb Your Enthusiasm," "Freaks and Geeks," "Arrested Development," "Six Feet Under," and countless others, has been about subverting all of our expectations. Maybe, if the most negative of my assumptions is correct, the next decade will be about what every picketer says he hopes for: getting back to normal.


Rex said...

This story is a bit of hearsay, and I don't have specifics...but I thought I would relate it anyway:

Before the strike began, one of my teachers spent a while talking about the last strike. The writers did not picket every day, and they had a lot more free time on their hands. (Writers are required to do at least 20 hours a week.) The studios and agents expected to get a lot more spec scripts, but they also expected to get films that were much more creative than the generic products they were turning out. It was certainly an ironic twist: while the studios wanted to screw the writers, they also hoped that the fact that they were not meddling with the stories would encourage artistically superior product.

Unfortunately, this was not the case. A lot of the writers, hoping to cash in on an expected post-strike gold mine, wrote things that they thought would sell. In short, they trafficked in cliche.

So, if anything, my own prediction about the strike is something similar: the financial situations for a lot of these writers will demand that they write something "commercial." That, and a lot of sitcoms will have plots about strikes.

Tank said...

That's really interesting, Rex. Thanks.

I was definitely looking at things from the side of the people who green-light the shows, but it's the writers themselves who will ultimately shape the future, writers who are in many cases going broke right now.