Nobody’s winning this war of words

Will the WGA strike find enough support?

Among recurring questions asked in the build-up to the writers strike (starting with “Will there be one?,” and I got that right) has been which side is “winning” the battle of public opinion.

Since perspective is invariably the first casualty in such an emotional dispute, let’s answer that with another question: Who did you passionately support during the strike-shortened 1999 NBA basketball season or the 2004 NHL lockout that body-checked hockey?

If the knee-jerk response is “A pox on both their houses,” bingo.

Comparisons to sports — where billionaire owners square off with millionaire talent — are admittedly imprecise, but the obvious parallels include careers with extremely lucrative potential that tend to be equally fleeting. Moreover, the irritation associated with depriving people of a beloved pastime is fundamentally the same.

As for ventilating the significant issues at the heart of Hollywood’s most perilous work stoppage in 20 years, don’t look for that from the nuance-challenged electronic media from which most people derive their news.

Speckled with complicated shades of gray, the strike represents the kind of story for which the media possesses little appetite, perhaps one reason why politicians that sped to the scene of California’s wildfires — including Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger and Los Angeles Mayor Antonio Villaraigosa — have thus far steered clear of this tinderbox, other than general platitudes.

Conspiracy theorists argue that Hollywood labor will never get a fair shake from news divisions operated by the same companies they’re striking against (CBS, Time Warner, News Corp., Disney, NBC Universal, GE Microwave ovens), but that’s giving them too much credit.

Big corporations engender sympathy only at Fox Business Network and Republican Party fund-raisers. Unfortunately for the writers, that doesn’t inspire public solidarity with them as picketers chant Vietnam-adapted slogans in need of rewrite, such as “Hell no, we won’t write, the Internet is worth the fight!”

Don’t let the honking cars fool you. The truth is that people like movies and TV, but they’re hostile toward what many perceive as its overpaid artists, which is why conservative talkradio hosts often spend more time campaigning against Rosie O’Donnell and Sean Penn than Hillary Clinton and Barack Obama.

A more fundamental problem is simply that the public doesn’t care enough to attempt grasping the story’s business underpinnings, which is why most early news coverage has focused on actors’ red carpet comments or Jay Leno delivering doughnuts to the picket line. Talkradio, an angry medium, is drawn to the conflict but has little patience for contemplating the legitimacy of the writers’ cause.

Beyond that, the details of what’s at stake are easily obscured amid CNN headlines like “Crisis in Pakistan” and “Abuse at Oprah’s School?” Indeed, by Tuesday morning, cable’s limited attention span was already drifting elsewhere, as MSNBC devoted time to NBC U’s self-aggrandizing “Green is Universal” environmental initiative.

“This is gonna cost everybody a bunch of money, isn’t it?” Fox News anchor Jon Scott asked Monday, fumbling with a topic lacking the tried-and-true missing woman or somebody insisting that Democrats hate America.

So the public’s response — softened by a massive proliferation of entertainment options since the last strike — will be annoyance, followed by eventual forgiveness for programs they really love. Whatever people say when interviewed at the mall, consumers seldom indulge in lengthy grudges, meaning shows with a committed following will be fine. For series on the bubble, by the time an extended strike concludes, its prospects will have likely burst.

Although writers have a well-founded grievance about getting shafted on DVD residuals in the past, then, they haven’t articulated their case particularly well, and no one outside a handful of area codes wants to hear it. Studios and networks can also muster a reasonable defense regarding the uncertainty hovering over their rapidly shifting business model but lose credibility by painting rosier pictures for consumption on Wall Street — which, as cogs in large corporate machines, is the one third-party constituency whose reaction truly interests them.

Ultimately, the PR mess should be sobering to both sides, another U.S.-led conflict where nobody’s winning. And if the crumb of good news in today’s strike is that the public probably won’t exact retribution later, it’s only because with a half-dozen HBO channels, video-on-demand and YouTube to tide them over, they won’t miss most of you enough to even notice that you’re gone.

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