‘Experts’ cash in on strike

Panelists, guest speakers flood airwaves with chatter

Attention, writers and studios: While you’ve haggled over how to divvy up the spoils from your work, there’s a subculture already jockeying to cash in on your labor misery.

The popular adage that the Chinese symbol for “crisis” combines “danger” and “opportunity” is apparently bunk, unless of course you want to parlay a crisis (in this case, the Writers Guild of America strike) into an opportunity (namely, being presented as an “expert” on CNN or Fox News, and maybe becoming the next Nancy Grace or Greta Van Susteren).

 So as with any breaking news event, PR minions have been out in force. Some are pushing products, coyly referencing the strike to gin up interest in multiplayer online games, suggesting that, TV in limbo, maybe the press should pay attention to that niche. Meanwhile, eager flacks are aggressively pursuing photo ops on behalf of labor attorneys, academics, consultants and just about everything but feng shui experts, peddling their insights regarding Hollywood’s turmoil.

Frankly, to borrow Woody Allen’s line from “Annie Hall” — the one where he expresses skepticism toward “any religion that advertises in Popular Mechanics” — perhaps it’s time for a moratorium on “experts” who bombard reporters with press releases trumpeting their credentials.

Yet because slimmed-down news operations are cheap and increasingly undermanned — fostering a kind of reportorial laziness, as fewer bodies struggle to occupy more space and time — this spam-like tactic can be surprisingly effective. Pressed to deliver credible-sounding talking heads usually on short notice, desperate bookers occasionally take the next warm soundbite-spewing body they can find.

The WGA strike is the latest story to prompt such attention, but it’s hardly alone. Other recent offers have included a professor happy to weigh in on the propriety of NBC News anchor Brian Williams hosting “Saturday Night Live” and various journalism experts willing to opine about Rupert Murdoch’s ownership of the Wall Street Journal.

As for the writers’ action, publicists have quickly begun shopping a number of labor attorneys, with one email beginning, “I know you probably have a ton of experts thrown your way, but I was hoping you’d consider speaking” with his client, who could detail the negotiation process should the writers go out on strike.

A personal favorite proved a bit more forward-looking. Issued on the eve of the strike, the query leapt ahead to what the networks can do to lure viewers back after it’s all over. And who better to conjure up that magical pearl than a partner in the Brookeside Group, a “loyalty consulting firm” that can dispense wisdom regarding what it will take to bring customers back after a crisis.

Sorry, but I’m going to remain faithful to the loyalty counselor that I was using previously.

To be fair, motives can be as varied as the pundits themselves, and aren’t always crassly commercial. Professors occasionally have a book to promote, but often their universities seem to thrust them out there strictly to put little Hamster U. (or, in one real example, Georgia State University) on the national media’s radar.

Admittedly, there is something to be said for widening the talking-head net’s sweep beyond the tired roster of usual suspects. That well-worn list includes political science professor Larry Sabato, legal scholar Jonathan Turley and Syracuse University’s Robert Thompson, who has transformed his stewardship of the impressive-sounding Bleier Center for Television and Popular Culture into the kind of media ubiquity (it’s not uncommon to see him quoted multiple times a day) usually reserved for heads of state and hotel heiresses.

Even so, the press-release solicitation process occasionally results in “experts” of dubious pedigree finding their way onto the air, in part because blowhards like Bill O’Reilly and Lou Dobbs approach guests more as props — there to either echo their opinion or be theatrically cuffed for daring disagree with it — than as true contributors to a genuine debate.

So don’t be surprised if some or all of these labor attorneys, tweedy professors and maybe even loyalty gurus elbow their way into the discussion. Because in media circles, crises do indeed create opportunities, and by the time the town gets fully back to normal, Hollywood’s labor pains might have birthed a whole new litter of pundits.

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