Audiences finds themselves on battleground
A SAVVY TV REPORTER (yes, there are still a few of those) wanted a cut-to-the-chase assessment of the writers strike: “Who’s winning?” he asked.Despite spin from both sides, the plain answer is nobody’s winning — that writers, studios and the often-forgotten audience are all losing, in roughly descending order. Indeed, if 2004-05 was the season of “Lost” and “Desperate Housewives,” ‘07-08 will go down as the lost season that left everyone desperate. Some recent coverage has pointed out that the networks are managing to hold their own with reality TV alternatives, generating ratings comparable to the scripted shows sidelined by the strike at a fraction of the price. That’s true so far as it goes, but it misses the bigger picture. Inevitably, the writers will rue many aspects of this work stoppage, which of necessity forces networks to keep throwing unscripted concepts against the wall, and some of those (such as NBC’s “American Gladiators”) will stick. Not many of these series will possess the staying power of “Cops” and “America’s Most Wanted” — which the 1988 strike birthed — but writers bitching about a lack of staffing jobs before will almost surely return to find fewer of them. As it is, network honchos are already muttering about the financial benefits of pulling a 3 rating or so in key demos by airing shows that don’t entail wrestling with director Barry Sonnenfeld over budget requirements to maintain the fanciful look on “Pushing Daisies.” Remember, too, that NBC floated a “cheap programming at 8 o’clock” scheme even before the strike, the rationale being that as long as your ratings are mediocre, why not garner them as inexpensively as possible? The truth, though, is that an over-reliance on reality by the major networks represents a one-way ticket to deflating parity with basic cable, eradicating the advertising premiums that separate NBC and CBS from A&E and GSN. WHILE THE NETWORKS are currently getting by, moreover, they’ll pay a price if this turns out to be a hit-less season on the scripted front, much like a pro basketball team that squanders its draft picks. Yes, veterans will tide you over for awhile, but without a periodic infusion of fresh talent, pretty soon you’re the New York Knicks. This could be especially damaging for programmers given that the expiration dates on popular series arise faster than they once did. Closing the spigot on new hits could soon leave the cupboard distressingly bare even once harmony is restored. Granted, the fall wasn’t exactly setting the world ablaze prior to the strike, but the handful of promising programs left in limbo might never recover. That could be especially bad for writers and the networks if it undermines a sitcom like CBS’ “The Big Bang Theory” — that rare half-hour exhibiting signs of ratings life. Playoff football propelled Fox’s “Terminator: The Sarah Connor Chronicles” to a strong opening before slipping markedly in its second night, and more scripted shows will premiere over the next few weeks. Yet with lineups disrupted, programs won’t have established lead-ins to help launch them, and encouraging results risk being a false positive. By April, the scripted pantry will be empty and the joke will be on anybody craving even a fleeting escape from reality. Without sounding too snotty about it, the fallout also hurts viewers, hastening a dumbing-down of entertainment. Like junk food, occasional indulgence in reality TV is fine, but a steady diet will only contribute to American minds and spirits becoming as flabby as our waistlines and thighs. SO WHILE WRITERS might exult over the jabs they’ve gotten in — scoring a technical knockout of the Golden Globes, say — this fight is more like a “Rocky” movie, where both combatants get the crap kicked out of them and one just happens to get up off the mat a half-step sooner. Catching up on old movies has been a refreshing way to kill time during the strike, and I recently watched “The Magnificent Seven,” where a wise old man notes that the gunfighter’s time has passed, saying, “Only the farmers have won.” Network TV, too, is running out of ammunition. When this strike is finally over, not even the accountants will have won.