Thursday, November 01, 2007

It's Quiet Out There...Too Quiet

They say that no news is good news, but in the case of the Hollywood labor talks between the writers and the studios, no news is simply no news.

Today marks the end of the contract between the studios and the Writers Guild of America, and the writers voted 90 percent in favor of a strike. But so far, there have been no picket lines and Friday will likely be the earliest the writers will strike.

Of course, when there is any labor stoppage that interrupts a service that Americans have come to expect, people look to blame one side or the other. But this is a case of both sides sincerely trying to look out for their own long-term interests in the changing climate of the entertainment industry.

From the studios' perspective, movies and TV shows have become so expensive to make that the only way they turn a profit is through alternative forms of media, such as DVD sales and downloading onto platforms such as iPods or cell phones. When you are talking about multi-millions of dollars, it's a lot of money that studios don't want to give away, especially since any concessions they make to the writers now they would likely have to do again in June when the actors' and directors' contracts are up.

From the writers' perspective, writers have always gotten the short-shrift in Hollywood, be it money or influence on their projects. Because the current technology wasn't much of a factor the last time the WGA negotiated a deal, there weren't many provisions covering things like DVD sales, meaning the writers are getting a pittance off a billion dollar industry, and get virtually nothing from downloads. The new contract the WGA wants not only would give the organization a greater piece of the pie, but would also cover any other new technology that is created to be a media platform. Who knows, in five years someone might create a platform that beams a movie directly into a person's brain.

A strike, or at least the threat of one, is the only weapon the writers have in terms of leverage. No strike would mean that the studios could dictate whatever monetary numbers they want for the new contract.

It's a critical issue for writers. Though you often read that a writer might sell a script for $1 million, you have to remember that the bulk of the WGA is unemployed most of the time. It takes years to sell a single script for a movie (trust me on this) and TV shows get cancelled all the time, putting writers out of work. Each year, during the TV staffing season, you get literally tens of thousands of writers competing for only a few hundred jobs.

This is a complex negotiation that won't be settled any time soon, strike or no strike. There are a few movies in the pipeline, so it will be a few months before studios suffer in that department, but most TV shows at best have only filmed about half their episodes. Without scripts, producers - even though most of them are the writers themselves - can't get any work done.

A strike will affect late-night variety shows the earliest, everything from "Saturday Night Live" to "The Daily Show" to "The Late Show With David Letterman." Those shows rely on topical jokes and are written within the same week of broadcast.

Dramatic TV, from sitcoms to one-hour shows, will be next. Those shows currently airing have enough scripts to make it likely January or even February, but nothing after that. For shows that have season-long arcs and storylines, like "Heroes" or "Desperate Housewives," for example, the long break between new episodes could be especially jarring for viewers. And networks will have a decision to make on shows like "24" and "Lost," which debut in the winter. Those shows are ones that the networks want to show without any breaks in the season, something they won't be able to do without completed episodes in the can. Do the networks want to potentially air only 10 episodes of "24," for example, and then pull it because there's nothing left to broadcast?

As a viewer, a strike will mean more reality shows, more game shows and more animated shows, since the writers on those types of shows aren't covered under this WGA contract. (At least we will get new "Simpsons" and "Family Guy.") TV news shows like "60 Minutes" also won't be affected.

Some of the networks are already adjusting their scheduling in anticipation of the strike. NBC has yanked production of the spinoff "Heroes: Origins," issuing a statement that the labor uncertainty has impacted the decision, and other projects like that will likely follow.

I'll post updates here about the labor talks as often as possible.

THURSDAY'S BEST BETS: OK, on to happier news. Any time Joss Whedon returns to TV, it's extremely happy. Tonight, the master returns as director of "The Office" (NBC, 9 p.m.), following Jason Reitman's great turn last week. Whedon directed last year's installment about the bat trapped in the Dunder-Mifflin office. In other Joss Whedon news, he's signed on to be the showrunner for Eliza Dushku's new series on Fox, "Dollhouse." (Why Dushku or Whedon would want to work with Fox again after the shoddy treatment both have gotten at the hands of the network over the years is beyond me, but that's the subject for another blog.) "The Office" follows a double-helping of "My Name Is Earl" (NBC, 8 p.m.) and is followed by an all-new "Scrubs" and "ER."

I love how "Smallville" (CW, 8 p.m.) always keeps things in the Superman family, what with Christopher Reeve, Margot Kidder, Terrence Stamp, Annette O'Toole and Dean Cain (two weeks ago) - all with past Superman connections in other films and TV shows - appearing on this one. That tradition continues tonight when Helen Slater, the original "Supergirl" from the terrible 1980s movie, guest-starring tonight as Lara, Clark's (Tom Welling) birth mother. In other "Smallville" news, another classic DC Comics character will make an appearance when Black Canary, played by Alaina Huffman, debuts on the Jan. 10 episode. Naturally, Green Arrow (Justin Hartley) and fishnet stockings will both be making an appearance as well. A new "Supernatural" (CW, 9 p.m.) follows.

Betty (America Ferrera) has a date with Broadway on "Ugly Betty" (ABC, 8 p.m.), followed by a new "Grey's Anatomy" and "Big Shots."

CBS is all-new with "Survivor" at 8 p.m., "CSI" at 9 p.m. and "Without A Trace" at 10 p.m. Next week, "CSI" and "Trace" will have a crossover plot between both shows.

Finally, if you missed the wonderful "Mad Men" the first time around, AMC is re-airing the pilot tonight at 10 p.m. I strongly urge you to catch one of the best shows this year, with a star-making turn by Jon Hamm as Don Draper, an advertising executive in 1960 Manhattan.


zodin2008 said...

Welcome back, Joss Whedon! But I couldn't agree more...why the hell would he ever want to deal w/ Fox again?

Eliza Dushku's "Tru Calling" was given far better treatment than "Firefly" so she shouldn't really have a gripe. It was a decent show that lasted a full season and never had good ratings. You are off base there.

As for the writer's strike, I am 100% convinced at this point the writers for "Heroes" have already gone on strike. It's the only explanation because the show is downright awful.

Let's just say if there is a prolongued writer's strike, my wife & I can catch up on a ton of movies we have saved in our DVR, plus, I can finally go back and watch those old DVD's I have of "Buffy" and "Angel" that are collecting dust.

Phillip Ramati said...

Tru Calling was yanked all over the schedule, pulled during sweeps and Fox wouldn't even air the final episode that was in the can, preferring to show some rerun, a real slap in the face to fans.

It actually lasted parts of two seasons, and was poorly promoted and treated by Fox. So I think she has some reason for gripes.