The writers' strike has turned a fine TV season into a sad mess of reruns and reality

For connoisseurs of television, this season was among the best of times, and has now become the worst of times. The ongoing strike by the Writers Guild of America is like the infliction of death by a thousand cuts as one by one, shows that were fortunate enough to have a few episodes in the can blinked into reruns five months too early.

First off, I understand that there are some of you out there--superior beings, to be sure--who want nothing to do with TV. Some people don't even own a TV set; others have one and never use it. I've heard it all before: TV is just a bunch of crap, junk food for the brain-dead.

Yeah, and I'm sure that every book you've ever read was a masterpiece, right?

One has to be selective, to be sure, lest he wind up on a steady diet of "reality" TV and the Fox News Channel. But there is much that is good. For example, the Planet Earth series that was recently on high-definition TV was absolutely breathtaking. There's no way one can get that experience from a book or a magazine. And even if I had the money, time and desire to fly to the Himalayas, there's only the slightest chance that I would ever see a snow leopard, let alone one in full pursuit of prey down a steep mountain.

Some scripted dramas and comedies, now lost due to the strike, were making this an echo of the Golden Age of Television. Dramas like Friday Night Lights and Rescue Me are brilliant, script-driven shows, with spectacular writing. While there will never be anything that will match the brilliance of the 1970s Saturday night CBS lineup of All in the Family, M*A*S*H, The Mary Tyler Moore Show and The Bob Newhart Show, what should be the current Thursday-night NBC lineup of My Name Is Earl, 30 Rock, The Office and Scrubs is always quite good and often outstanding.

What's mystifying to many observers of the strike is that the two sides--the writers and the producers--appear to be squabbling over what is, in terms of percentages, a relatively small amount of money. In fact, the two monetary figures mentioned in the most recent offers from the two sides are only a few million dollars apart. The difference is in the manner by which those two figures are derived and the fears of the producers that the writers' system could send things spiraling out of control in the not-too-distant future.

The writers were burned badly in the last negotiation when they failed to see, off on the horizon, the lucrative new market that is DVD sales of entire TV seasons. This is basically a license to print money, since the episodes are already made and need only be pressed onto discs and sold for outrageous amounts, generally in the neighborhood of $50. (It absolutely cannot cost more that a couple of bucks to put those packages together.)

Writers not only want a piece of that pie, but also to gain a foothold in the next big market, that being Internet broadcasts, which are currently in their infancy and are not part of any collective-bargaining agreement.

It would be easy to cast the writers as the good guys and the greedy producers as the bad guys, but there is a third group in the mix that makes this a real mess.

Over on the movie side, writers are asking for a bigger piece of a pie that is often less than half of a pie before it gets to them, and sometimes is no pie at all. For decades, the studios raked in the dough and paid actors a relative pittance. When the studio system was finally broken up, some actors and directors began making big money. Some were offered "back-end deals" (a part of the film's profits), but that money rarely materialized as studios and producers used accounting tricks to keep even the biggest blockbusters from ever showing a profit on paper.

Now, however, a few megastars (like actor/producer Will Smith and producer/director Steven Spielberg) have gained the upper hand and can easily make tens of millions of dollars off the front and back ends of movies before anybody else can even get a crumb, let alone a slice.

It reminds me of that scene in Broadcast News in which Jack Nicholson makes a cameo appearance as the iconic network anchorman, strolling through a newsroom made somber by an announcement of cutbacks and layoffs. When Nicholson expresses his halfhearted regrets, the news editor says something to the effect of, "If you would give back just $1 million of your salary, we wouldn't have to lay anybody off."

Nicholson's icy stare at that suggestion should have won him a special Oscar.

This strike is not getting the general populace up in arms, and it probably shouldn't. Greed is never pretty, and I'm sure that the average person thinks that writing is easy. A few writers in the industry have it great; some have it good; most are probably living off their spouse's incomes.

Still, I hope for a settlement soon. It's probably too late for a season of 24, but I wouldn't mind a 12.

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