High anxiety: The stresses of strikes

A writers' strike may bring some other problems

With all this intense talk about contract disputes, I feel a responsibility to remind everyone that writers’ strikes can be dangerous. I should know; years ago I participated in one.

Here are some of the points of jeopardy that may occur during a writers’ strike:

  • Writers aren’t accustomed to picket lines. During the last strike, I almost got run over by an errant Bentley. A well-known writer, the driver was delivering afternoon Bellinis to colleagues walking the line.

  • Writers don’t deal well with free time. Liberated from their customary script deadlines, some decide to write the Great American Novel. This is not a healthy phenomenon: Unpublishable novels are bad for a writer’s ego.

  • Writers are insecure about their status in the social order. Once they find themselves on a picket line, writers feel compelled to remind their friends at networks or studios that they are, in fact, a lot wealthier and more important than they. Friendships are splintered by these class tensions.

  • In the period prior to a strike, studios and networks tend to rush shows into production without the customary fusillade of development notes. Stripped of their ability to complain about idiotic notes, writers exhibit intensely neurotic reactions — they turn on their wives, writing partners, even their agents.

    Given these and similar side effects, it would be constructive if the Writers Guild took another hard look at their demands before going nuclear. Remember, the last strike brought forth the era of the reality show. More relevant, it also forced a lot of writers to confront their own realities. Either way, it was an upsetting experience.

One big scrappy family

Now that we’ve glimpsed the problems of “the working class,” let’s briefly look at the curious mood of “management.”

The CEOs of the major companies seem joined at the hip in their admonition to the Writers Guild that their costs are soaring, profits declining and audiences are becoming increasingly fragmented. This is no time to make steep wage demands, they lecture, even as their box office bonanzas dominate the headlines.

The same CEOs, newly returned from Herbert Allen’s Sun Valley moguls retreat, appeared together July 19 in offering a moving final farewell to Jack Valenti, legendary head of the MPAA. They also have been hanging together recently at candidate fund-raisers — the ever fraternal Hillary-and-Barack circuit.

None of this is big news, of course, but it serves as a reminder that the entertainment industry, with all its surface competitiveness, is still a club. Its leaders mingle socially, confer informally about star salaries and other bottom-line issues and, most importantly, get in and out of business together.

The mix of proposed deals and joint ventures even now on the table is mind-bending. Even as his Dow Jones deal cools, Rupert Murdoch reportedly is still talking it up with Yahoo. General Electric was briefly joined with Pearson in bidding for Dow Jones, (Wall Street Journal reporters already have an arrangement to appear regularly on CNBC). Then, of course, Murdoch and NBC Universal have become partners in a still-unnamed Internet video venture. Not to be forgotten, Microsoft and Google are in and out of all kinds of ventures with a myriad of partners, real and prospective.

Bottom line: The media universe is both convoluted and confusing, with everyone constantly schmoozing with everybody else.

But if the corporate players seem to be getting along, the purveyors of talent aren’t happy about it. In trying to set up their mega-deals, talent reps are running into remarkably similar dialogue (and numbers) from studio to studio. They’re not suggesting collusion, they’re just praying for more collision — the sort that happened in the past, when one studio would aggressively bid against another.

If there’s one thing that scares the hell out of a good talent agent, it’s peace and harmony.

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