BY Garland Hunter in Frieze | 06 JUN 01
Featured in
Issue 60

Lights, Camera, industrial action!

Pondering the significance of a screenwriters strike

BY Garland Hunter in Frieze | 06 JUN 01

The most debated political issue in Hollywood this spring was not George 'Nowhere Man' Bush (he has not set foot in California since the election) or the loss of their biggest action star, Bill 'Polish My Helmet' Clinton. It was the impending Writers Guild of America strike, the inevitable strike as it became known, planned for 1 May - D-Day for the WGA and their opponents, the networks and movie studios that employ them, subsidiaries of the media combines that rule the entertainment world. On the table was the writers' upcoming three-year contract and the future of television as we know it.

We can pinpoint the unholy nativity of such fine news magazine shows as 48 Hours and Dateline: it was 1988 - the year of the last writers' strike, which lasted 22 weeks. The networks, desperate to fill endless hours of television vacated by the absence of new sitcoms and hour-long dramas, expanded upon the 60 Minutes theme and voilà! Who knew we craved interviews with tragic yet loquacious families from Lockerbie, Columbine and Oklahoma? Long after the writers' strike was settled, the shows had settled into permanence. And since American Gladiators, Cops, Extreme Animals, World's Worst Accidents, ... Millionaire and all the other news and game shows don't have scripts, they don't fall under the unions' jurisdiction. So they kept on multiplying until we reached our current critical mass of botched liposuctions, twins sold on the internet and white, married couples who not only like to swing, but invite us to join them in their quest for hot, consensual, middle-aged sex.

If 1988 saw the multiple birth of the news magazines, what could we have expected from the 2001 strike? More news? We knew that Morley Safer and Mike Wallace, already octogenarians, might not have survived a more punishing schedule. Thought you'd seen the last of fat, naked Richard or bitchy Jerri or whatever other insta-celebrities have been created by the boon of reality TV? You've only scratched the shallow, unwritten, non-union surface. In addition to the game shows, there are already more and more Survivor clones, such as Boot Camp, Chains Of Love and the sleazy Temptation Island, where couples are tortured by the charms of the single, firm-breasted and abdominally well endowed. We've already bid farewell to the Mole and Big Brother. Next up, Manhunter - the first step towards the fictional worlds of Series 7, The Running Man and The 10th Victim. Can a television version of Rollerball be far behind?

Who wins? Despite their counter-measures, the networks lost nine percent of their market share since the 1988 strike and would probably lose 12 percent more in another one. The writers in turn lost a big chunk of on-air production to reality TV and foreign production. But there is a bigger game in play. The major media conglomerates that own the networks, the movie studios and the press - News Corp (Fox), AOL-Time-Warner, Disney (ABC), Viacom & Vivendi Universal are looking to a digital future. In the digital world the content owner is king. Each time the unions strike, it is to protest about two things. First, a proposal to roll back the 50-year-old royalty system, which lets your favourite stars, such as Jerry Seinfeld and the writers for those irresistible Friends, become rich from reruns. That same system also gives working stiffs, like yours truly, their own tiny bite of the entertainment apple. Second, the media giants' gargantuan appetite for control over intellectual property rights - they want to own everything, likenesses and slogans included - is being challenged. Each time the unions are forced to do battle, gladiators to the media's global empire, the ensuing runaway shift to reality TV, animation and news shows tilts the balance in the conglomerates' favour. Who wins? They do. That's why you can see a Mercedes commercial with footage of Picasso working on the production line. Who loses? We all do.

However, this year, after a long, tumultuous bargaining period, a deal was made. It was not for the initial $100 million demanded by the writers, about the cost of one big Hollywood film, but for decent creative gains - including the right to attend premieres of their own films and $41 million over a three-year period divvied up among the 11,000 guild members. Funny, it's only slightly less than the most recent salary cheque paid out to a single man also in the entertainment industry: Rupert Murdoch, CEO of News Corp.

It's not over. The fat corporations have their eye on the succulent actors' union contracts as well, after an unsuccessful attempt to pick off the commercial wing of the union last year. That contract expires on 30 June. The true reality that Martin Sheen, sorry, Josiah Bartlett, is not really our elected president may finally become painfully and irrevocably clear. No more fantasizing about who is really in the White House. We may finally get the television we really deserve, just like the president we didn't really elect.