The Writers Guild of America strike isn't even two weeks old and it is already wreaking havoc -- not on the striking writers or the network and studio executives against whom they are protesting, but on hundreds (and before long thousands) of hard-working individuals who are not on strike. They are the soon-to-be unfortunate souls who work in and around the television business.
Stories are circulating about the impending firings and layoffs of staffers at an ever-growing number of scripted television series. With shows out of production because there is nobody writing them, or because actors, show-runners and directors, among others, are choosing not to cross picket lines and continue working, the crushing economic hardship of the strike is about to begin. Thousands of working-class people in Los Angeles -- many of them living from paycheck to paycheck -- may soon find themselves on the unemployment line, and the timing couldn't be worse, given the mortgage crisis that threatens to consume entire neighborhoods of that city like the raging wildfires of recent weeks, the soaring cost of gasoline (L.A. is especially vulnerable to pain at the pump), the general weakening of the economy and the arrival of the holiday season. It's a perfect storm of misery.
Of course, striking writers and their colleagues in New York and elsewhere will be similarly impacted, but the majority of the collateral damage will occur in L.A. The misfortune will come in waves: Thousands of people who work in the movie industry are currently employed on productions from scripts written in the recent past, but when those projects are completed sometime in 2008 they will all be in deep trouble, too.
The longer this strike lasts, the worse it will be for everyone. And let's not even think about the very real possibility that members of the Screen Actors Guild and the Directors Guild of America will also walk off the job next June -- especially if the demands of WGA members are not met by the networks and studios before that time. (The issues of concern to members of all three Guilds are very similar.)
Seriously, the strike mess is spreading everywhere. As I write this, it is unclear if members of the Television Critics Association will meet in January for their annual winter tour, when they preview upcoming programming from all cable and broadcast networks -- because the besieged broadcasters are contemplating pulling out of the tour. That may not sound like much of a crisis to most people, but for the many TCA members who work for publications outside of New York and Los Angeles, these twice-yearly tours represent their only opportunities to talk and conduct in-person interviews with executives and actors. The material they gather keeps their columns vital for months to come. With budgets being slashed at newspapers across the land and everyone under intense scrutiny, it is entirely possible that some of these people will suffer professional hardship without the TCA tour, or with a reduced tour that does not include the broadcast networks. No amount of telephone interviews can replace the vibrant copy that comes from attending press events in person.
It's easy to get pissed at WGA members when you sit back and watch the ripple effects of their work stoppage, and with thousands of innocent people poised to suffer egregious losses. After all, the rest of us don't get perpetual royalties from the work we do for our employers, even those of us who provide content in other areas of the media. And most of us don't make anywhere near the amount of money that talented scriptwriters do when they are actually working. And most of us work 50 weeks a year with only two weeks of vacation time to call our own, so we find it hard to relate to able-bodied adults who say that they need residuals because there are gaps between their work cycles and unemployment will only go so far during their "dry" periods. Is there any reason they can't get a real job that isn't filled with so much built-in down time, just like the rest of us? How about a second job to make ends meet?
And yet, it is even easier to get pissed off at the networks and studios, because while it may appear to ordinary people that scriptwriters don't need to demand anything more from anybody, the actual demands that they are making of colossal media corporations don't look like much of anything to begin with.
I have read dozens of columns and reports about the strike, and they have only added to the growing mix of disgust and despair that I feel for the overall situation. But earlier this week I came upon a very heartfelt missive from one of the writers and actors on Comedy Central's Reno 911! that brought it all into simple focus. Robert Ben Garant, formerly of Farragut, Tennessee, and a member of the WGA, composed his thoughts as a guest contributor to Tele-Buddy's Tinseltown Tales, the online blog of Knoxville News Sentinel television critic and bon vivant Terry Morrow. Garant clarifies what the actors are asking for and what the studios have told them. He cuts right through all the crap in the manner of an ordinary Joe talking to his family and friends back home. I learned a few things from his commentary -- and you will, too. I feel that I can trust Garant: He misspelled Rupert Murdoch's last name, and that makes him real people.