A striking lack of ideas on US TV

With the schedules packed full of Pop Idol clones, ripped-off Brit-coms and half-scripted reality TV shows, it's little wonder the US public finds the screenwriters' strike a turn-off.

Strikes don’t figure much in American life today. They happen, of course, but in recent decades industrial disputes have become so rare that many people’s experience of them is limited to dramas on film or television. It’s somewhat ironic, then, that the very writers responsible for bringing those fictional strikes to life are struggling to do the same with their own.

In early November 2007, members of the Writers Guild of America (WGA), unable to agree the new terms of their basic contract agreement, came out on strike against the Alliance of Motion Picture and Television Producers (AMPTP), the trade organisation representing most of America’s film and television producers. As powerful as the latter organisation sounds, the strikers comprise the 12,000 or so writers who script most of American’s television dramas, soap operas, comedy and talk shows.

It’s a dispute that’s been brewing for months. Though the relationship between writers and producers is usually cordial and symbiotic, with producers dependent on the writers for material and writers dependent on the producers to promote what they write, two issues in particular have cast an increasingly dark shadow over this arrangement. The first is the protection of writers’ residuals, that is, the right to residual compensation on content distributed via new media channels such as internet downloads and satellite radio. The other concerns include the unionisation of staff involved in reality television.

Residuals have been a bone of contention between writers and producers ever since the 1988 writers’ strike over the rights to residual compensation in the then emerging home video market. The agreement the WGA negotiated at the time gave writers residuals of only 0.3 per cent of the first million of distributors’ reportable gross and 0.36 per cent thereafter. By the time the market matured, movie studios were making far more on video and DVD sales than at the box office. Meanwhile, the writers were still limited to the same relatively small cut of the profits. The agreement came to be seen as a mistake by writers who are determined not to repeat it. The WGA wants to double their residuals for DVD distribution as well as gain a 2.5 per cent cut of distributors’ gross for new media distribution and sales. Producers are wary, both because it is still unclear how the new media distribution market will develop and how profitable it will be, and because they fear that a higher share of the gross for writers will lead other production staff to expect the same.

The other issue concerns supposedly unscripted reality television programming. Until now, reality programming has resisted unionisation. Producers maintain that these programmes, almost by definition, do not involve writers. WGA members argue that the culling and shaping of raw material into the narrative structure necessary to make reality television watchable constitutes writing and should be subject to agreements negotiated by the WGA. Employees working for reality productions who have tried to unionise have been fired.

So far the strike has made little impact on the American public. According to a Pepperdine University poll released in November, most Americans are broadly sympathetic to the writers (1). But squabbles over whether Jay Leno violated union rules by putting material he’d written himself on the autocue - as per an agreement negotiated with the WGA - or charges that Jon Stewart seemed too prepared upon his return to The Daily Show are unlikely to inspire anything more than bemusement amongst the public.

There are several reasons why public support has been muted, not least of which is the change entertainment has undergone over the past few decades. The days of ‘must see TV’, when Americans settled in on Thursday nights to watch their favourite shows, are long gone. Sure, everyone still has their regulars but they are just as likely to be reality series as scripted programming. Mid-season repeats of drama and comedy series are depressingly common and what’s more, on-demand TV and digital video recorders like Tivo mean viewers are less tied to the network’s scheduling. Consequently, there’s unlikely to be a shortage of things to watch.

The bigger problem for writers and producers is that what’s on offer, whether first-run or repeat, simply isn’t very compelling. This hasn’t always been the case. When it comes to scripted programming, the American entertainment industry actually has a good track record. Its great innovation was to find a way to produce high-quality entertainment on a mass scale. It did this by creating a structure that not only nurtured the talents of individuals but brought a collective dimension to that creativity. The result has been series like The Sopranos, The Wire, Frasier, Seinfeld, ER and Homicide: Life on the Streets, to name just a few. Unfortunately, however, in recent years the industry seems to have lost the plot.

Instead of taking a chance on new ideas, desperate American television executives have either bought the rights to mediocre concepts like Pop Idol or The Amazing Race, or simply reproduced British sitcoms like Coupling and The Office, sometimes without even bothering to change the scripts. And when there are hit series like Sex and the City or CSI:Crime Scene Investigation, they either inspire a host of doppelgangers or spawn clones that take place in slightly different settings, like CSI: Miami or CSI:NY. It’s not that American writers lack the creativity or the talent to come up with new material, it’s more that the industry has become too risk-averse to allow creativity and talent to flourish as it once did.

The current dispute is also a product of this conservative mood. Both sides are motivated by fear of what the future may bring. Writers are acting now to preserve their position in the industry via reality television and new media. And the producers, lacking confidence in the new media market’s ability to perform as well as the video and DVD market, prefer to play it safe with cheap and cheerful reality programming.

Talented people that they are, WGA members have been waging a funny propaganda campaign on YouTube, with sympathetic actor-writer types like Ben Stiller and Tina Fey sexing up the picket lines.But it’s been to little avail. Instead, it’s taken the virtual cancellation of this year’s Golden Globe Awards and the controversial returns of presenters like Jay Leno, Conan O’Brien, Jon Stewart and Stephen Colbert to television screens this month to generate enough drama to capture the public’s imagination.

The support of the Screen Actor’s Guild and separate agreements negotiated between the WGA, United Artists and David Letterman’s production company may encourage other producers to break ranks and do the same. The longer the dispute lasts the more pressure there will be for those involved in ailing genres like soap operas to do likewise, especially as these shows tend to lose audience permanently after any sustained interruption (2). Alternatively, too many separate agreements and confusion over waivers granted to members like Jay Leno - he says the Guild said he could write his own monologue; it says it didn’t - risks splitting the writers and confusing the public.

Nancy McDermott is a writer based in New York.

Previously on spiked

Theresa Clifford reckoned that The Wire showed what TV was capable of, while Neil Davenport argued that The Sopranos was still the greatest show on earth. Dolan Cummings thought American TV the best in the world. Or read more at spiked issue USA.

(1) Poll shows support for writers, LA Times, 14 November 2007

(2) Soap operas face extra hurdles in strike, LA Times, 23 November 2007

For permission to republish spiked articles, please contact Viv Regan.

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