American Gladiators To Crush Writers’ Strike?

Reality shows are holding up well for the networks.

Round 12: A quick check-in on the eve of the Globes that were flattened:

At this point, it seems clear that two options exist. The studios give a carefully calibrated deal to the Directors Guild that will allow the other unions to end the war. Or, the studios are on a march to the sea with the intention of breaking the Writers Guild. In this scenario, the idea would be that the directors get an unacceptable deal, the writers’ unity crumbles, and the Screen Actors Guild, still under contract until the end of June, loses its nerve after contemplating the mangled corpses of writers at the side of the road.

A very articulate comment posted in the Fray by one Peter Noah (yes, the same one listed on IMDB with all those TV credits) states a point of view supporting the studios-crush-the-writers scenario. He writes:

What no one’s factored in here is that [the networks’ resorting] to cheap reality and game programming actually advantages their bottom line—they get the same paltry rating at a fraction of the cost. And as a bonus, forced into this, courtesy of the writers, they even get to do so without having to withstand critical opprobrium. … [This is] why the Guild leadership utterly miscalculated the effectiveness of this job action.

Jeez, Peter, are you after Hollywoodland’s job?

In a Variety article on television ratings, our friend Josef Adalian would seem to underscore the point. He says, “[R]eality shows are doing as well as or better than the scripted shows they’ve replaced” and that ABC’s Wednesday lineup hasn’t skipped a beat despite losing Pushing Daisies, Private Practice, and Dirty Sexy Money.

On the other hand, Adalian notes that viewers could get sick of all reality, all the time. (You think?) And studios can’t squeeze as much advertising and other revenue out of reality as they do out of successful scripted shows.

So, how long-term are the big conglomerates that own these studios thinking? Watch what happens with the Directors Guild to find out. (link)

Jan. 8, 2008

Thus Spoke Zucker: You would think NBC Universal president and chief executive Jeff Zucker is a busy man, trying to revive his network, dealing with the writers’ strike, figuring out how to deal with the cancelled Golden Globes telecast. But is he too busy to attend to details?

Remember that Top Ten list—Demands of the Striking Writers—that David Letterman had on the air last week, on his first night back? It was presented by a string of scribes including The Daily Show’s Tim Carvell, The Colbert Report’s Laura Kraft, and Nora Ephron.

Several sources from various places claim that before the show, Zucker got wind that among the presenters were a couple of striking Saturday Night Live writers. In other words, writers for an NBC show were abetting the enemy when their loyalty clearly should have belonged to disadvantaged Tonight Show host Jay Leno! (Back with no writers except, of course, himself.) The writers were in the Letterman’s lair, waiting to record the list, when someone at NBC got hold of them, our sources say. Zucker’s displeasure was threatened and they were convinced to book out of there just before the cameras rolled. (Conan O’Brien writer Chris Albers stood his ground and did the list.)

An NBC spokesperson denies that Zucker made that call or caused that call to be made. “We would not want our people on Letterman but Jeff Zucker is not meddling,” this executive says. “This is happening on a lower level.” Someone at NBC simply invoked Zucker’s name in trying to stampede the writers off the show, the spokesman contends, adding, “I do it all the time when I need clout.”

This spokesperson took the hit for trying to block another NBC talent, Tracy Morgan, from being a guest on Letterman this Friday. (That’s not working out—it’s already taped.) Morgan is on NBC’s 30 Rock but the Letterman appearance is to promote the upcoming First Sunday—a movie that has nothing to do with NBC Universal. But NBC’s position is that if Morgan wants to promote something, he should do it on Leno’s show. If he doesn’t want to cross a picket line—which would be necessary if he were to appear on Leno’s show—then he should stay home. (link)

Jan. 4, 2008

More on the writers’ strike: If it were possible for David Letterman to have done anything more to support the writers in his first show back on the air, we’d like to know what: It was all about the strike, even though Letterman had a legitimate deal with the Writers Guild and could have considered himself off the hook.

Meanwhile, a pissing contest seems to be developing between Jay Leno and the guild over whether he had permission to write his own monologue. The guild rules—clearly stated when the hosts announced their plan to return—hold that no guild member (and Leno is one) can write, even for himself.

Though the guild denies it, it’s not impossible to believe that Leno got a wink and nod beforehand. The guild already had an awkward situation on its hands. It made a deal with Letterman, whose company owns his show. Leno doesn’t own his show and can’t negotiate his own deal. So, while both hosts had been supportive of the strike and stayed off the air longer than their own staffs had dared to hope, Letterman’s writers got to go back to work while Leno’s had to remain off the job. But if the guild leadership saw Leno as supportive, his decision to write and perform his own material hasn’t exactly cemented that perception. One late-night writer e-mailed us that Leno had thrown the union “under the bus” and that he “was, is, and always will be, a company shill.”

Obviously the hostility arises in part because the two shows were, are, and always will be profoundly competitive. It is assumed that Leno will be handicapped not just by the lack of writers, but by the picket line outside his show that decent talent presumably will be unwilling to cross. Yet on the first night, Leno still outdid Letterman in the ratings. There are only a couple of possible explanations: People watched Leno hoping to see him struggle without writers, or people weren’t up to speed on the details of the strike and simply stuck to their old viewing habits. One in the latter group was Mike Huckabee, who claimed he didn’t know he’d have to cross a picket line to appear on The Tonight Show. He thought all the hosts had “a sort of dispensation” to go back on the air.

The only more clueless position was the one taken by the Hollywood Foreign Press Association, sponsors of the Golden Globes, which actually purported to believe that the guild would give the group a deal that would allow the show, which is supposed to air on Jan. 13, to go on with the guild’s blessing. As if.

Even before Christmas, there were rumors ricocheting around that the HFPA asked NBC to cancel the telecast since there seemed to be little chance of any A-list talent appearing on the show. If that was the case, NBC is apparently unwilling to play ball. Since the current plan is to forge ahead with the awards, this year’s telecast appears likely to tarnish whatever luster the Globes had left.

But we digress. The question we are asked again and again is: When will the strike end? In an NPR interview on Wednesday, Bill Scheft of the Letterman staff expressed hope that the late-night hosts will heap enough constant ridicule on the networks to drive them back to the bargaining table. And, as we said, Letterman certainly did his part that night.

But Scheft’s hope does not seem realistic. At this point, it seems clear that the Alliance of Motion Picture and Television Producers will never yield a deal that would allow the Writers Guild of America to declare victory. The Directors Guild of America is in the on-deck circle for contract negotiations, and could provide an out. The AMPTP could reach an agreement with the directors that the writers might then accept. But the DGA seems unlikely to wrest such a deal. And if the directors agree to terms that the writers reject, the WGA will try to hold out until the Screen Actors Guild can back the writers’ play with its own strike—at the end of June. That’s a long, long time from now, so the money question is whether the writers can stay unified.

As for the AMPTP, the hawks seem to be in control. It occurs to us that the most hawkish of the hawks is said to be Peter Chernin—Rupert Murdoch’s humble servant. Fox has American Idol premiering soon, and that has been the ultimate television show (in terms of ratings) for some seasons now. Does it occur to the other networks, which have no such weapon in their arsenal, that by following Murdoch’s hard line, they are enabling him to get the most out of his competitive advantage while they are left to scramble with reality shows and reruns of cable programming? How well it all works out for him. (link)