Friday, December 28, 2007

Will Somebody Please Save These People From Themselves*

A couple pertinent strike-related news items came out today that I felt compelled to comment upon. Anything to put-off working on my Year End piece I suppose. They are as follows:

Letterman Makes Deal With Writers.

Followed later in the evening by the official press release.

In short, David Letterman’s production company, Worldwide Pants (which is not to be confused with CBS Television, the network), has agreed to the Writer’s Guild’s terms and has secured a waiver for both the “Late Show with David Letterman” and “The Late Late Show with Craig Ferguson.” The Writer’s Guild leaderships goes on to commend Letterman for agreeing to the “integrity and affordability” of their proposals stating that this is an important strategic move in brokering an industry-wide resolution.

Stupid, stupid, stupid.

This is why I feel, the Writer’s Guild will ultimately gain nothing from this alleged work-stoppage, with a special gift basket of nothing delivered at the doors of the “little guys” in the guild whom this strike is supposed to be about. In addition to the lack of clarity over their demands, the lack of solidarity and conviction by the Guild’s leadership has been undermining the work stoppage since day one. Either you’re flinging your wooden shoes into the machinery or you’re not. There are no half-measures with this one.

The issue was never whether the benevolent David Letterman, Writer’s Guild member, edgy cat and all-around burr in the side of corporate America would support the union’s demands. Letterman may be a successful entrepreneur and television mogul with an enterprise worth hundred of millions of dollars, but he’s also an entertainer. Furthermore he knows those Top 10 sketches and Paul Shaffer songs about hot dogs don’t write themselves. Furthermore, he's able to sniff out a competitive advantage when one's presented to him. The move was a no-brainer for him, as it would be for Leno or Conan. Or for that matter Jerry Bruckheimer ("C.S.I.")or Bad Robot ("Lost") or Dick Wolf ("Law & Order"). Because, you see, the WGA isn’t striking to bring about change from individual producers. The enemy here is The Alliance of Motion Picture and Television Producers. Collectively. Just as Writer's belong to an organization that collectively negotiates and protects their rights, whether it effects them or not, so to do the producers. But in the eyes of an individual producer such as Letterman (or any of the aforementioned production shingles), this waiver represents nothing more than a case by case contract renegotiation. A bump in after-air/alternate media residuals to keep the workforce happy. Since it’s their pie, they’re free to slice it up however they see fit. Essentially, the waivers push the writers' problems onto the show's producers, with the real people causing the harm and getting rich (the networks and the studios) remaining blissfully removed.

But how exactly is that helping the cause? Sure twenty writers (who, it’s been informally reported, make in excess of six figures a year) get to return to their jobs with new WGA-approved contracts. Letterman is viewed as a savior both to the WGA (already showing favor towards the man, paving the way for his show to be the first to hammer out an arrangement such as this in addition to this recently published release) as well as to his network. But here’s where the kick in the balls comes in: CBS gets to reap the benefits of that WGA approval while still continuing to be a part of the very system that’s (allegedly) keeping writers down. A textbook case of having your cake and eating it too.

So what exactly does Letterman get out of this deal? Well for starters he gets to return on January 2nd at full steam, with the writers Dave is comfortable with, able to perform an opening monologue (something union leadership has warned Leno and Conan not to do) as well as employ his usual routine of skits and audience Q&A’s while killing time before this month’s hot starlet and Oscar-grubbing star spend time on his couch. Oh yeah, that’s the other thing: no WGA picket-lines outside the Ed Sullivan. So, the few remaining actors with principles no longer have to fret over angering another union over crossing a line to shamelessly promote their new product. I’ll give you a for instance. Let’s say you’re Tom Hanks. Your new movie is horribly underperforming in a crowded winter marketplace and it’s time to slap a Band-Aid on the situation by hitting the late night, talk show circuit. Do you go on Jay where you’re might run into Aaron Sorkin or Akiva Goldsman carrying picket signs (oh, who am I kidding… the guys Aaron and Akiva paid to carry picket signs) or do you stick to Dave and Craig where you’ll be patted on the back for supporting “the good guys?”

So what’s the big deal you ask? Isn’t some progress better than none? No, not when it comes about like this. Because the WGA is cherry picking who it is they do and do not want to guide through this painful period in our national history which is sure to be remembered for a proliferation of hastily conceived reality shows, game shows, reruns from sister networks and more televised sports (I don’t think CBS has ever looked forward to March Madness more than it does this year). Worldwide Pants has agreed to a waiver. Does anyone doubt for a second, if given the opportunity that Leno or Conan or “The Daily Show” would not jump at the opportunity to sign one as well? Does anyone else find it suspect that the WGA is creating semantics arguements to justify that this is a deal with Worldwide Pants and not CBS, (the alledged reason that Jay and Conan are SOL is they are considered employes of NBC/Universal and not entities unto themselves)? But that’s not how the WGA is playing this one. They’re anticipating the return of those shows to be such abject failures that their desperation (especially in the face of Letterman operating at 100%) creates even more leverage. I’m not quite sure what Letterman did to be placed in such a lofty position of unfair creative advantage though. Or for that matter how it was deemed that it was acceptable for CBS to benefit but not NBC or Comedy Central.

The favoritism as lobbying for position continues elsewhere. It was recently reported that the Golden Globes were denied a waiver from the WGA and as a result may not be televised . Before everyone starts making obvious jokes about one less bloated award show or how “we’ll never know who gets drunk” it should be pointed out that the WGA granted waivers to both the Screen Actor’s Guild Awards (broadcast on TNT a subsidiary of Time Warner) as well as the Film Independent Spirit Awards (broadcast live on the Independent Film Channel and later on AMC, both subsidiaries of Cablevision). So what we’re to take away from this is some award shows are acceptable for movie stars to grace the red carpet unfettered by noisy picketers and heavy consciences but others are not. Namely the Hollywood Foreign Press, who serve (seemingly) no other purpose than to hand out trinkets in the weeks leading up to the Academy Awards. Again, I’m forced to ask, does anyone really believe that if push comes to shove that Daniel Snyder (owner of Dick Clark Productions which produces the show, the Washington Redskins and BFF of Tom Cruise) wouldn’t agree to a similar waiver that would allow the stars to shine at his awards show and for the whole event to broadcast at NBC? But what’s to be gained from that? The cancellation of the Globes is nothing more than a shot across the bow at the Academy Awards: You see what we did to them, well we’re coming for you next.

And since no one seems to be asking it, then I must: what is an industry pocked with a handful of waivers really going to matter when (because no one can honestly believe it’s a case of “if”) the work-stoppage is resolved? What happens if the WGA folds on their demands, or at the very least compromises on some of them? I mean, it’s not like you’re not giving some of the studios an advantage anyway by letting them make money off new original content while your brothers and sisters in arms continue to “starve” on the picket line, right? I eagerly await the announcement that since Reveille Productions sent a plate of muffins to WGA leadership, “The Office” and “Ugly Betty” can resume production. But I digress: back to the earlier issue. Wouldn’t these waivers be as worthless as the Confederate dollar in 1866? What would bind a production company to adhere to a contract out of step with the rest of the industry? And conversely, how would the rest of the rank and file react to some productions having more amenable bylaws than others simply by virtue of being on the waiver pecking list? I thought this strike was supposed to be for all future generations of writers. Strength through unity and all that jazz. How does this move reflect that candy-coated sentiment in the slightest?

And then there are the real losers of this latest development: WGA feature film writers, who don’t stand to benefit as heavily as their TV-brethren from weekly streaming content. Who could probably give fuck-all about Reality TV and animation. Who stand to benefit not at all from Waivergate (if this term catches on, I want to be on record as coining it) who, most importantly, stepped away from their Power Books and potentially lucrative paychecks to support their poor, exploited television writing cousins. Because it was the right thing to do. What could they possibly be thinking right now, as they continue to metaphorically (I can only hope not literally) go hungry while they’re future is sold out from underneath them by short-sighted management. For this they gave up months (and counting) of employment?

I’m over the strike frankly. I’m industry, but in an especially apt irony, I work in a sector of the industry that isn’t successful enough to be negatively affected by the strike so I’m more or less observing from a safe distance. I’ve kept my eye on the trades, regularly read Finke and Poland, have watched the battle lines being drawn, have seen the number of recordings on my Tivo dwindle. I’ve been hopeful for a speedy resolution but not a hasty one. I am not a WGA member (although I suppose on some level I can’t deny that I’d like to be one some day, if only for what is implied by said membership) so I can not pretend to be swayed by the same issues that have emptied the writer’s rooms out in front of the Warner’s Gate on Barham and the Paramount Gate on Melrose. But if it was decided that a strike was required to change the industry then I accepted my small sacrifice of less television and the realization that almost every big budget movie rushed into production for next summer will be even more shitty than usual. But, it could be rationalized, even as just a consumer, that these are small prices to pay for the greater good.

However I now feel betrayed. So I can only imagine how the membership at large is feeling right now, no matter how leadership spins this:

Guess what folks: you’ve jeopardized your livelihood, your careers and the security of yourself and your families so the men and women who feed lines to Rupert at the Hello Deli can get a slight increase in their residuals for online content. Wait a minute, Worldwide Pants doesn’t control that: CBS does, so I suppose it’s their prerogative whether or not they honor the waiver agreement. The important thing is two dozen of you are going back to work and we get to increase Les Moonves’ bottom line. Smells like victory to us.

Smells like something alright.

* Line courtesy of WGA member Peter Morgan


CresceNet said...
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