Parallels to entertainment do offer some lessons
For years Hollywood’s leading players have taken refuge from their mission to entertain the world by settling into choice seats at Lakers and Dodgers games — especially when the local teams were winning championships.So what can the town glean from the sports world’s current convulsions — including labor strife threatening to scrub the NBA season and the auction of the Dodgers, after a public meltdown that ought to have people wondering who will play owners Frank and Jamie McCourt in the movie? These situations aren’t completely analogous, but parallels to entertainment do offer some lessons. Under the McCourts, the Dodgers managed to alienate fans of what appeared to be one of baseball’s unshakable attractions. Even when the team was mediocre the franchise consistently drew well, in part because visiting Dodger Stadium was such a pleasant experience. It’s possible, in other words, to mismanage a beloved property into a temporary shambles. And on the entertainment side, the deluge of alternatives means such missteps can wreak havoc faster than ever. As for the NBA, where the lockout has claimed part of the season and could jeopardize the whole thing, it’s hard not to watch charges and counter-charges flying via Twitter without hearing echoes of the last writers strike. Admittedly, the talent guilds are significantly different from pro sports, since anyone drawing an NBA or NFL paycheck these days is raking in a sizable amount of money. There aren’t middle class and struggling members, as is true for many actors, writers and directors for whom unemployment is the norm and working the welcome break. There are key common threads, though, beginning with the brevity of careers (particularly in sports), which provides management a powerful bit of leverage — nobody wants to squander their prime earning years — and can drive a wedge between legitimate “stars” and journeymen. Billionaire owners also do a fair job impersonating major studios when insisting their broken business model actually makes them the aggrieved, needy parties. The one element of reassurance, for both Hollywood and sports, is the public’s inability to hold grudges against things that delight and divert them. The NFL endured its own labor discord and promptly roared back in the ratings. Past NBA and Major League Baseball stoppages and scandals yielded predictable griping — a pox on their over-privileged houses! — that proved toothless once the business of thrilling playoffs and seven-game series resumed. Most people find it equally hard to stay mad at movies and TV, whether the source of friction stems from strikes or conservatives (primarily) who insist they’ll boycott shows or movies because of a star or filmmaker’s politics. The same goes for cable-carriage fee disputes, which almost never trigger the wholesale subscriber flight that channels dangle to weaken a distributor’s resolve during negotiations before the parties inevitably reach a compromise. Ultimately, consumers are creatures of habit who don’t like being forced to contemplate the people behind the curtain when it comes to their entertainment. Confront them with the fact that artists and athletes don’t ply their trade strictly out of devotion to craft or the game, and they’ll lash out temporarily at them, or at management. Remove the distraction and put out a product they like, however, and all is forgotten. Yet despite repeated demonstrations of this dynamic, in the heat of the moment fans and media pundits frequently sound false alarms about lingering damage and unforgiving viewers. Former Dodger Steve Garvey, who is part of a group bidding for the franchise, recently told a sports radio show, “Sports is the memory business,” which reflects an alluring sense of nostalgia, infused by the warming imagery of fathers passing their passions to sons. The reality is harsher than that — and these days, more likely involves dad watching sports alone. After all, how many young kids stay awake until midnight to watch big games almost invariably scheduled under the lights — not to create shared memories, but rather to maximize TV revenue? For Hollywood and sports, therein lies the real lesson: Due to its excesses, sports often finds itself in the amnesia business. As for the pervasiveness of that condition, the NBA and whoever winds up owning the Dodgers ought to thank their lucky stars.
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