What Was A TV Network, Uncle Eric?

I spent Christmas week in a world without network television, during which I saw a vision of the Ghost of Entertainment Future which ought to scare the bejesus out of the writers and the producers enough to get them back to the bargaining table.

As my family gathered at my oldest brother's house in Florida for the holidays, most of our entertainment choices were dictated by the tastes of my teenage nephews. It's not that the television was never turned on. Far from it. Rarely was there a moment when someone wasn't staring at the TV screen. That 27-inch centerpiece of the living room brought us "Teen Titans" video games and Wii bowling and loads of indecipherable Cartoon Network anime. Thanks to an internet connection which fed through the TV set, my older nephew could also tap into his favorite YouTube videos, including some he had edited himself, firmly lodging the "Avenue Q" ditty, "I'm Not Wearing Underwear Today", in the "repeat incessantly" lobe of my brain where that lame McCartney Christmas song would typically reside this time of year.

We watched "Saturday Night Live" best-of collections featuring Christopher Walken and Steve Martin, both on loan from the local library. We watched a DVD of the holiday special, "Olive, The Other Reindeer," and an episode of "Flight of the Conchords."

What we definitely did NOT watch on my brother's TV were CBS. Or NBC. Or ABC. Or Fox. Or the CW.

The closest we came was a videotape of the recently broadcast "Shrek" Christmas special - during which we naturally fast-forwarded through the commercials. And, oh, okay, on some nights after the young'uns had hit the hay, the old fogies did switch on the local news at 11pm, just to make sure the rest of the world hadn't exploded or Will Smith hadn't proclaimed his love for Adolf Hitler. But this was vestigial behavior exhibited by ancient types who also still read a daily newspaper. To the boys, the big networks seemed entirely irrelevant. After noticing this trend, I even asked my 15-year-old nephew if he ever watched anything on the major networks and he scoffed. Granted, he scoffed at pretty much everything for the entire week, but it was clear that he didn't think the broadcast networks offered anything of interest to him, and I doubt that he is a wild aberration from his peers.

As a writer, I was pleased to discover that scripted entertainment isn't entirely abhorrent to my nephews. They're obsessed with "Pirates of the Caribbean" and my older nephew is so into "The Nightmare Before Christmas" that he's on the verge of morphing physically into Jack Skellington. But these are clearly just options among a galaxy of entertainment choices for a generation that is growing up with the expectation that they should be able to watch or play or download or stream whatever they want, whenever they want it.

Seeing my nephews viewing the internet, including YouTube videos in all their crappy-resolution glory, on a full-size TV screen drove home the reality that the distinction between television and the internet is already being blurred if not obliterated. The major sticking point in the current contract negotiations, the so-called "new media," already includes the old media. It seems obvious from my vantage point that, when entire TV episodes can be seen on a network's website right now, complete with sponsorship, the creators of those programs deserve to be properly compensated. (And, yes, I'm fully aware of the irony of arguing that writers must be paid for work they do on the internet in a post on a website that doesn't pay its contributing writers.)

Frankly, who knows whether TV networks as we know them will even exist in their current form in the near future? My internet and my television signals already enter my home through precisely the same cable. What's to stop the networks from simply redefining themselves as websites and then declaring that they don't have to pay writers, directors and actors at network rates because, hey, it's ALL "new media" now? In five years, ABC could exist solely as ABC.com, where "Lost" could always be found and you could access racy unrated episodes of "Grey's Anatomy" on demand at any time and watch them on your flatscreen monitor, your PC, your DVD player, your iPod, your cellphone, or the chip implanted into your retina.

Perhaps the network executives are confident that they can survive the strike comfortably, cramming their schedules with quiz shows and dance-offs and anything else that's free of those bothersome and expensive actors and directors and writers. Perhaps they surmise that the public will watch any damn thing regardless of its quality as long as it moves, is in color and involves semi-recognizable faces and/or people being bitchy toward each other. But deep down, they must know that the audience's longing for expertly-told stories and well-crafted quips will not go away. (If, as a desperate stopgap measure, the networks buy a lot of cheaply-made scripts from China, they should be on alert for high quantities of leaden dialogue.) Movie studios, whose product flow is not as immediately impacted, may still be hoping that the strike ends before their pipeline slows to a trickle.

I doubt that anyone on any side of the current dispute is secure in their predictions of what the mass media will look like in the future or exactly where and how the revenue will be generated. But I do feel certain that, in whatever form content is delivered as we move forward, those who pay to produce it will figure out a way to make money. If those producers only make a little, then the artisans who conceive and execute the films and programs should only make a little. However, if the producers make a crapload, the writers, directors and actors ought to get an appropriate proportion of said crapload. Surely, serious negotiators should be able to come up with formulas agreeable to both sides which would acknowledge the current uncertainty but make provisions for reasonable rates which would apply in a more stable financial future. I'm encouraged by the WGA's deal with David Letterman's Worldwide Pants, which should indicate to all concerned that what the Guild is requesting is not insanely unacceptable. It gives me a glimmer of optimism that similar agreements might be reached with ABC/Disney or with NBC and its owner, the Scheinhardt Wig Company.

Recent vitriol from both sides notwithstanding, the "creatives", the "suits" and the below-the-line victims of the current strife ARE all in this together. The storytellers need people to fund and distribute their work, and the studios and networks need those wacky artists, whose understandable wishes to share fairly in the income generated by their works shouldn't be resented but should be accepted as a natural part of the business of show.

I've appreciated the lively debates about the strike that have taken place on the Huffington Post, but I'm disappointed that, after all these weeks, no one has stepped forward to present an eloquent, logical defense from the producers' point-of-view (and, no, John Ridley doesn't count). True, some anonymous posters have parroted AMPTP talking points in the comments sections, and Ron Galloway has chimed in from Georgia, but is there no power player from the heart of H-O-double-hockey-sticks-YWOOD who would be willing to blog here to provide a consistent, rational voice of the AMPTP's POV without maligning the writers in general or their negotiators in particular?

From my armchair negotiator's perspective, I think not only the Directors Guild but also the Screen Actors Guild should begin their negotiations with the producers as soon as possible, giving the WGA and the AMPTP a much-needed "time out" to calm the tension between them. All three unions face the same "new media" issues, with the actors being more publicly vocal in support of and alliance with the writers. Since it is generally assumed that the best deal cut by one of the guilds will become the template for the others, why shouldn't the guilds present a unified front right now? By beginning negotiations early, the DGA and SAG could also come off as good guys who are doing all they can to get the industry back to work and prevent even more strikes when their agreements expire come summer. Best of all, if the actors and directors demonstrate that they're willing to fight over the same issues that are at the core of the WGA's demands, it won't seem quite so much like the current misery is solely the fault of those asshole writers.

Despite the rancor and stalemate, I sincerely believe that a happy ending can still be crafted. Come on, everybody, let's make finding a quick and just settlement our new year's resolution. Sure, it won't be simple, but it's got to be easier than losing ten pounds. Then we can all get back to what we're best at: making movies and TV shows that my nephews won't watch.