No one wins when it comes to strike

Industry strife begs tough questions

The trouble with strikes is that it’s never clear who wins them.

In August, 1988, when the writers strike finally ended after five months, one writer went into the cheese and caviar shop in Beverly Hills and treated herself to a huge piece of foie gras. The shopkeeper was so happy that the strike was over he charged her half price. “I think I did better with my foie gras than I did with my residuals,” she told a friend.

Strikes are emotional. The rhetoric resonates with cries for freedom and justice. But this is not about the French Revolution, it’s about digital downloads.

Coverage of the strike is scrutinized by all sides to detect hints of bias or factual error. As Variety‘s editor-in-chief, I, too, am targeted with questions and suspicions, which is perfectly understandable. Here are some sample questions and answers:

Question: Since you formerly held executive positions with three studios over a period of 17 years, don’t you find yourself leaning toward management?

Answer: When you’re on the outside, you always hear rumors that the studios are cooking the numbers. When you’re inside a studio, you help cook the numbers. The experience leaves you with twin emotions: You empathize with those executives who are fighting to sustain their margins. You also comprehend first-hand the flaws in the process, and empathize with those who are getting shafted.

Q: Do you think the timing of this strike will help the writers?

A: If the writers want to punish the networks, it’s both well-timed and ill-timed. The TV season is still in high gear, but toward the holidays networks move into specials and reruns, then “American Idol” kicks in. During the ’88 strike, reality shows boomed and ratings for ad-supported cable channels rose 25.5%. The ’07 strike comes at a time when network ratings are fallings and box office is softening. Add in fires and the credit crunch and you come away with this epiphany: When it comes to strikes, there’s no such thing as good timing.

Q: But don’t the writers have added muscle, given their support from the showrunners?

A: True, but the companies paying them have muscle, too. They’ve grown bigger, more international and more invested in the Internet, which could be the only real winner from this strike.

Q: But with each succeeding week, won’t the networks and studios realize they’ll never recoup their lost revenues?

A: And with each succeeding week, more and more actors will see their checks stop coming and producers will get calls from companies saying, “May the force majeure be with you.” The pain will be pervasive.

Q: If both sides won’t budge, what will happen?

A: Once the Directors Guild decides the writers have reached an impasse, it could try to reach a settlement with the companies. If it succeeds, there would be enormous pressure from high-paid writers to match that deal.

Q: Every strike has a subtext. What’s the subtext of this one?

A: A behind-the-scenes power struggle rages over every form of our pop culture. The writers have more muscle in the theater, and directors in film, but it’s unclear which talent constituency will win hegemony on the Web. The writers sense they’re in danger of losing creative control (as they did in movies) and also finding themselves marginalized economically. Their fear is instinctual, subliminal and probably realistic.

Q: So who will win?

A: No one. What else is new?

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