From my perspective, the current strike by the Writers Guild of America is reminiscent of President Reagan’s comment to his chief of staff following a warning that the Democrats were threatening to shut down the government. The president’s response: “Let them go ahead and see if anybody notices.”
This attitude may in fact prevail for at least two reasons. First, the public’s entertainment choices are now many and varied, and no longer dependent upon what the television and movie industries deign to foist upon it. Secondly, it is quite obvious to most that the product provided by writers and producers has been on a downhill slide for at least two decades. The reliance on smut, sexual innuendo and feeble plots, along with a marked lack of originality as erstwhile successful themes are poorly rehashed has served neither the audience nor the medium well.
The Writers Guild claims the shutdown is essential to protect its members’ future incomes by greatly increasing revenue from DVD sales and sharing revenue from new media, primarily the Internet. Currently they receive nothing from Internet downloading or video streaming, both of which are substitutes for television and movies. Compounding the dispute, the Guild halted all negotiations.
While, to be sure, many may be irritated temporarily by the writers’ strike, it is not in the Guild’s best interest to prolong it — in my humble opinion, at least. In the eyes of many, a diet of reruns purports to be far more palatable than the present product described earlier in this column. For example, what TV fare today compares favorably with “Gunsmoke,” “Hill Street Blues,” “Barney Miller,” “Carol Burnett,” “Andy Griffith,” “General Electric Theater” or even “Gilligan’s Island,” to name a few?
And Tinseltown’s most recent pitiful attempts at competing with the classics of old are inglorious failures at best. Perhaps a minute segment of the public is sufficiently gullible to accept car chases, automatic weapons fire, explosions, special effects and virtual onscreen sex as a substitute for serious acting and sound plots; however, most of us recognize a commodity that seldom rises above or even to mediocrity.
The film industry appears entirely devoid of initiative and original thought in providing quality entertainment. Forgettable remakes along with current “message” movies do not stand a chance against the likes of “Casablanca,” “Harvey,” “Shane,” “Sands of Iwo Jima,” “Stalag 17,” “Roman Holiday,” and others. People still go to movies to be entertained rather than be bored or preached to.
The Guild’s last strike of 20 years ago lasted five months and cost the industry an estimated $500 million. Today’s writers are dealing from a position of reduced strength because fewer shows are scripted today, due largely to the advent of reality shows. First affected will be the late-night TV hosts, topical programs and soaps. Prime-time shows are shot in advance and most will finish the season.
Accordingly, a prolonged strike could seriously affect the writers or cripple the union should the writers opt out of membership. Alternate venues for public entertainment have multiplied since the days of three-channel television — not for the better, perhaps, but they do exist.
For those who cannot live without the late-night style of humor, fairy tales, science fiction or Saturday Night Live, I might suggest tuning into the campaign debates, or even the staged photo-ops of either political party’s legislative leaders. They provide sufficient slapstick, pratfalls, bombast and smoke-and-mirrors to amuse even the most ardent fans.
Please do not take me as insensitive — the writers do provide a service and are entitled to just compensation. Nevertheless, their bargaining power suffers due to reduced demand for their finished product, an altered entertainment venue, lack of originality among the writing community and a public no longer satisfied with the status quo.
Consequently, the writers and producers must adapt, or we may return blissfully to the thrilling days of yesteryear where “A fiery horse with the speed of light, a cloud of dust and a hearty ‘Hi-yo, Silver’” appealed to us all.
Karl Miller retired as a colonel in the U.S. Marine Corps. He is a Columbia resident and can be reached via e-mail at JKarlUSMC@aol.com.