Feature: Drinking Jesus Juice at Deadline Hollywood

by Paul William Tenny

Nikki Finke of Deadline Hollywood and I don't see things eye-to-eye when it comes to Hollywood labor. She drinks the coolaid the studios gave out to the press when they took their retarded residual rollbacks off the table in the first sign that perhaps they are actually interested in trying to negotiate a new deal before the strike occurs. For somebody who appears to be a legitimate "expert" on industry execs - insofar as one can be such a thing - and I respect her insight, access, and stinging if not often insulting and unprofessional attacks on said execs, she just continues to miss the big picture.
If I didn't like her stuff, I wouldn't read her. But this is just silly:

As for Chernin, Iger, Barry Meyer, Moonves, and also Zucker, they actually welcome a strike because they believe the 2007/2008 TV season is dead on arrival anyway. So many new shows are tanking in the ratings and/or going over budget and/or having production problems (Fox's Back To You, Nashville, K-VILLE; CBS' Kid Nation, Cane and Viva Laughlin; NBC's Journeyman, Life and Bionic Woman; ABC's Cavemen, Big Shots, Dirty Sexy Money, and Pushing Daisies. Even returning hit shows are losing their Nielsen luster (NBC's Heroes, ABC's Desperate Housewives and Grey's Anatomy, CBS' CSI:Miami and Cold Case) that they feel this is as as good a time for a strike as any.

If she talked to all of them and this is what she believes, that's fine, but that doesn't mean it's true, and even if it is true, all it means is these specific execs are retarded. However much money they are losing on failing pilots that they greenlit it can't possibly compare to what they'll have to fork over when they go off the air because their own greed has stopped them from making a fair deal with writers that are obscenely tired of getting screwed.

I find it impossible that any of these executives think any time is good for a strike, much less this one when every outside observer seems to believe that a strike now could be more devistating than any other in industry history in terms of losing a sizable chunk of the television audience permanently. A lot of people that went away during the last strike never came back, and this time it's going to be even worse.

If you think piracy is bad now, wait until the strike stretches into early summer.

Putting aside these guys' questionable mental faculties, I would say they are simply snowballing anybody that is willing to listen. It makes far more sense as a means of warfare to make writers believe they don't care about a strike than it does for them to actually not care that the $500 million they lost in the 80's will be a mere fraction of what it could cost them this time around.

If writers buy that bridge, they'll be more inclined to back down and settle for no gains once again. It's a lie worth selling but not one the guild is going to buy.

Perhaps a number of these execs do think that there is an opportunity with a strike to regroup, as Finke quotes them as saying, but taking advantage of what feels like an inevitable situation is hardly the same thing as not caring if that situation happens or not, nor does it get the two sides any closer to coming to an agreement after it actually happens.

I found this news really surprising because the WGA's TV writers who make up the vast majority of the guild membership have been clearly operating under an illusion. (This won't be the first time for that by either side...) As I wrote Friday night, intense pressure is coming from the TV writers to strike sooner rather than later in order to hurt the primetime business to the greatest extent possible. They argue that waiting until January 1st would allow most shows to bank 6 to 8 more episode scripts, and the only real way for the WGA to wield palpable power is to shut down the TV season as soon as possible, even by November 1st. Now I find out that this will play into the hands of the TV moguls who certainly sound ready to give up the season entirely.

If anything, this sounds like Finke buying into propaganda. She undoubtedly understands many facets of that business better than I do, and yet I can't escape the driving force behind these negotiations - money - being the primary factor in what decisions are made by those studios.

I thought it was odd when I heard that the guild wasn't going to consider a strike until SAG's contract expired in the middle of next year for precisely the reason they aren't going to do it now, which is the same reason Finke just outlined above: why give the studios another half year to produce films and TV series at a vastly accelerated rate when all that does it further mitigate the damage a strike can do?

It just doesn't make any rational sense, and it seems rather undeniable that striking as soon as humanly possible (should it be deemed necessary to do so once the contract expires and it looks like the studios still aren't interested in making a deal..of any kind) is going to hurt the networks and studios far more so than it would if they waited another six months. The longer the guild waits, the more episodes they can shoot and put into storage, the longer they can keep pulling that stuff out of storage and putting it on the air during the strike.

Even if the execs have given up on the new fall season, which I seriously doubt and which so far has been completely unsubstantiated (in fact the additional script orders and recent full season orders provide ample evidence to the contrary), cutting it short is only going to make it worse, not better. Shows that already have advertising sold are going to cost the networks; the studios won't even be looking at a profit from these shows until they hit either syndication or DVD, will be eating huge losses, and we're not even factoring in the billions the studios won't be making over the winter and spring from the lack of feature films. The blockbusters planned for summer will be pushed back, if it goes that far, right into next fall.

It's useless to point out that the last strike was in 1988, lasted 22 weeks, and cost the industry a half-billion dollars. Because the answer I get back is that the producers have now mastered the programming "art" of cheap reality TV and game shows. (see my previous, Strike Vote In For WGA: 90.3% Say "Yes")

This is kind of endemic of the problems with the press in general over the past six years, where a reporter is told something, and they simply accept it whether it is true or not, simply because "they have access" that others do not and therefore "it must be true." Reality shows have a failure rate that appears to be roughly on par with every other show type. While each network has a couple of hits, they all have a couple of drama hits as well.

We look at the outrageous numbers that American Idol gets and quickly forget that no other networks put their own reality hits up against it, or each other for that matter. If you put Dancing with Blah Blah up against Idol, do you honestly think they'd both be pulling in those magical numbers? No, they'd each hurt each other just like when you put big dramas up against each other.

To say that producers have mastered reality is also a ridiculous claim - there are just as many dead bodies on the floor with a reality sticker on their forehead (in fact there are more right now) as drama and comedy. Fox canceled a new one after airing just a single episode this fall, put another on a lengthy hiatus, and others are faltering on CBS. Every network had a new reality show this year and so far none of them have clicked, as pretty much nothing has.

If the networks try to replace the majority of their programming with reality during the strike, that slate is going to be vulnerable to the same rules of math that apply in every other situation: 90% of it will be crap, and hence devoid of viewers.

Yes, an all-reality slate will be extremely cheap, but it will also bring in a proportionately low number of viewers and money and will not even come close to making up the difference. In this case, conventional wisdom seems to hold some value. The money lost during the '88 strike will be a drop in the bucket compared to what will happen during this one.

At the same time, the moguls are convinced they're losing the PR war in the pre-strike period. Because I understand the studio and network bigwigs thought their renouncement of residual rollbacks was a really big deal that would get the writers in a positive frame of mind.

They are losing it; their opening salvo of nuking residuals (due to cooking their accounting books) was laughed at right from the start and even with what appears to be a strike-happy guild leadership, they managed to look like the side goading for a strike. That's quite an accomplishment. I also find it kind of funny that the execs seriously thought taking a nuclear weapon off the table would be considered a concession of any kind.

You might as well have been Mexico negotiating a free trade agreement with the United States by starting off demanding they be given possession of California in the deal, and then having the gall to accuse the other side of not being serious about negotiations.

All it tells us is that the execs weren't playing games with the rollbacks - they actually thought the demand was going to be a part of the negotiations - which means they weren't simply being overly aggressive, they really are just that stupid.

I'm told the moguls were genuinely shocked at the WGA spin to members that it wasn't much of a concession since it never should have been on the table in the first place -- and there are dozens and dozens of other AMPTP-proposed rollbacks for the guild to still worry about.

It's time for the "moguls" find new jobs if they couldn't predict such a result, as it's clear they have more issues that just poor taste in scripts. That rollback demand was equivalent to WGA demanding the minimum screenplay fee be raised from a little under $100k to about $100 million. I'm completely serious about that, the rollbacks were that stupid. Accepting it would be so damaging to making a living as a writer that most guild members would have been better off financially to just quit and find work in another industry, and this in the middle of record earnings for the studios this past summer to the tune of $4.3 billion just for the season.

I hear California could use more firemen, perhaps.

"Right now, the attitude is that we made a major move, and they're kicking sand in our face," a mogul told me.

I don't know who said that and it wouldn't matter if I did know, but if I could give this person a single piece of advice, it would be this: fire yourself. If this is the general consensus amongst the studio and network execs, then they are so disconnected from reality that a deal may never get done. Offering to kill somebody fast instead of slowly - which is basically what they did by taking the rollbacks off the table - is not a major move, it's admitting the demand was a stupid mistake that never had a chance in hell of being taken seriously.

It was a demand so distasteful that the writers took it as a sign that the studios simply didn't want to negotiate at all. Now that it is off the table, they feel that maybe the studios are actually ready to talk instead of spewing rhetoric and grandstanding - but that doesn't mean they get credit for it.

You don't get credit for deciding to stop beating your wife.

When the execs agree to a better residual formula for digital media - it doesn't matter if there isn't a number yet - when they agree that there will be a better number only then can the real negotiations begin. Only then will good behavior be rewarded. Only when we stop reading articles in the L.A. times saying that the studios pay $0.50 to the DVD manufacturer but only $0.20 to the actors, writers, and directors combined will they consider the studios to be negotiating in good faith.

So some of the moguls want to come up with a way to get their viewpoint across to the WGA membership. Katzenberg is the most vocal about this, floating the idea of "putting a face out there to show we're human". Suggestions include hold a press conference, sending one or several studio and/or network bigwigs to the negotiating sessions, or starting a so-called "mogul blog" to focus on the strike. Or maybe create a Q-&-A session with those moguls who feign sincerity better than others and post their conversations on an AMPTP web page

I'm not sure what the point of that even is. Look at the numbers above, writers+directors+actors get 40% less than the darn disk manufacturer gets on a $15-20 DVD, just what point is there to get across, that the studios give the word "greed" a whole new meaning? If writers were talking about taking $5 out of a $20 DVD, the studios would have a legitimate complaint (not necessarily a good one, but still legit.) But when writers are getting five cents from the deal, and that's precisely what the studios want to pay writers for digital downloads - that's not being serious. The only point is that the studio execs give entirely new meaning to greedy and writers who just want their fair share just aren't going to put up with it anymore.

I'm sure that Katzenberg is a nice guy, and a fair guy in most situations. A lot of people are fair in small numbers, but this situation even if it is the status quo has not been fair for nearly 20 years, and the studios are trying to continue that status quo well into the future. There is room for bargaining here, but the question over whether or not writers will get paid higher residual rates for new media than they do under the home video formula is simply not debatable.

The bargaining to be had is over what that rate increase will be, and what rate is actually fair. 0.25% is not fair by any standard outside of China or India. It's a miracle it has lasted this long, and that's really a testament to the pathetic guild leadership over the years than anything else.

The moguls also have spent the past five days "devising our own alternatives" to present to the WGA. The problem, say the bigwigs, is that "no one at the WGA has come to us with a formula" and "without residuals, the WGA is having a hard time articulating what they really want."

That's odd because I've heard the guild is proposing 2.5%. I don't know if that's a good number, or a bad number, but that's a number which makes the "moguls" dishonest jerks merely by it existing. Is it any wonder why writers won't trust them? And is it hardly a surprise that the guild doesn't want to sit down at the table until the last week or so, with the studios having steadfastly demanded that all residuals be nuked?

The only way this doesn't end in a strike is if the studios stop playing games and come to the table for serious negotiations, which mean an equal or better than pay-TV residual formula. If they aren't willing to pay writers fairly, then they will have to try making television without them.
in Feature, Film, Labor, Television


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