Television in Turmoil: Ed Martin on the WGA Strike

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Cover image for  article: Television in Turmoil: Ed Martin on the WGA Strike

Will the Writers Guild of America strike bring about the end of television as we know it?
 
Don't roll your eyes. It doesn't take much these days for people to alter their viewing patterns or to embrace new forms of entertainment. (Oprah Winfrey today will feature the breakout stars of YouTube on her influential syndicated talk show!) If the 12,000 members of the WGA who began a work stoppage on November 5 strike long enough to interrupt or severely compromise the current television season, it is not that much of a stretch to conclude that a significant percentage of viewers may not return to the shows they are accustomed to watching, or to broadcast television, period.
 
In short, primetime will be in dire peril if the strike lasts for weeks or, heaven forbid, months. Look at the damage that was done to such powerhouse series as Lost and Heroes last season when they were removed voluntarily from their network's schedules for prolonged periods of time. Heroes was white hot before its six-week, late-winter hiatus but cooled down considerably upon its return. (This season, it has yet to regain its heat.) Another freshman series, Jericho, was all but destroyed by its extended mid-season hiatus.
 
There is a reason why Fox several years ago moved the annual season premiere of 24 to January, and why ABC this year decided that Lost would begin each of its remaining three seasons in February. These late starts allow the shows to play out over several months with no preemptions (or with only minimal interruption).
 
Of course, the overall primetime picture isn't totally dark during strike time. While a lengthy work stoppage could result in the disappearance of most first-run scripted programming come January, many viewers won't even care. They'll be focused on the return of the reality competition powerhouse American Idol, which often commands ratings that eclipse virtually every other series on television. If the worst comes to pass, Fox could run Idol three nights a week and move its summer hit So You Think You Can Dance forward into the spring. Meantime, ABC in early '08 will still be playing the promising Dance War and will be gearing up for new editions of Dancing with the Stars and The Bachelor. CBS will have its recently revitalized Survivor and The Amazing Race to help it along. The CW will go with America's Next Top Model, Beauty and the Geek and a handful of other reality shows that will likely perform better than much of its scripted fare has this fall.
 
Daytime is another matter. Soap operas are particularly vulnerable to strike-induced damage. Think back to the mid-Nineties, when prolonged preemptions for news coverage of the O.J. Simpson double-murder trial completely derailed any existing momentum for the soaps on all three networks. When they returned to regular daily telecasts after more than one year of recurring chaos much of their collective audience had kicked the soap habit -- and it has been downhill ever since. The soaps were in great shape before the O.J. trial began, and they still took a hit. Tellingly, most of them at present are struggling to survive. Another mass audience defection will be a disaster. That chill in the air is not the arrival of winter. It's the approach of a soap apocalypse.
 
There are all sorts of factors working against the writers and their product at this difficult time. It doesn't help public perception that a strike has been called less than two months after the start of a television season that has already left millions of television viewers disappointed with what they have seen. There are no breakout hits among the more than 25 new series that launched this fall on CBS, NBC, ABC, Fox and The CW, and only a few critical successes. Many once-reliable returning series seem oddly to have lost their pizzazz.
 
Had this strike occurred last year at this time, as buzz was building about several exciting new series including Heroes, Ugly Betty, 30 Rock, Jericho and Brothers & Sisters and television writers appeared to be at the top of their game, the public response to their plight might be something more than all that yawning you heard yesterday. As for movie writers, don't even go there. How often do you walk out of a movie these days marveling at the storyline and the dialogue?
 
There is something huge that WGA members did not need to think about during their last strike (a 22-week walkout way back in 1988): An ever-increasing number of digital-driven young people don't care if writers work or not, because they hardly watch any television at all, except for a few reality efforts on basic cable. Generation D is largely busy playing video games on its television sets and viewing viral videos, exploring virtual reality, downloading music and interacting with itself on its computers. Further, Gen D has instant access to tens of thousands of existing movies online and on DVD when it feels the need for a pursuit of greater substance.
 
Given the mounting problems in the world, I'm betting there is little interest overall in a group of very well compensated Hollywood writers who want to receive additional royalties for their work whenever and however their employers choose to utilize it. Further, it doesn't help that thousands of ordinary working-class people who toil in television and movies and make far less money than writers are going to suffer terribly if they cannot work in the months ahead. It isn't their battle, and they aren't going to recoup their losses regardless of the resolution.
 
On the other hand, if the writers don't get all of the money they are clamoring for, it will likely land in the hands of network and studio bigwigs and corporate fat-cats, and that doesn't seem right, either.
 
What a maddening state of affairs. Let's hope they all figure it out and get back to work as soon as possible. That will allow us some breathing room before the possible strikes next summer by members of the Screen Actors Guild and the Directors Guild of America.

 

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