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the film criticism aspect of cyber | by maryann johanson

Stewart and Colbert will return to the tube… but should they?

Jon Stewart and Stephen Colbert will return to the air with new shows on January 7, and as much as I miss them, I wish they weren’t. The strike by the Writers Guild of America continues with no end in sight, even though

Last week, Wall Street firm Bear Stearns issued a report stating that even if the Writers Guild got every single provision it has been asking for in a new contract, the impact on the conglomerates’ bottom line would be “negligible.”

(That’s via the WGA strike blog United Hollywood.)
The impact on the bottom lines of the talk show hosts — including others such as Conan O’Brien, Jay Leno, David Letterman, and others, who also will be back at work next week — is another matter, however. Many of them “have been using personal funds to pay the non-writers on their production staffs during the strike, in hopes of buying time until a settlement could be reached” (according to The Washington Post), and The New York Times reports that the WGA has “accused Comedy Central of forcing [Stewart and Colbert] back to work.” It’s certainly easy to imagine that they (and the other late-night hosts) have contracts that give them no choice but to return even if it makes them, WGA members themselves, something like scabs.

The shows have worked out a deal with the Guild that allows them to operate without writers — The Washington Post has the details:

[I]n essence, they can’t write material that their striking writing staffs would have produced for them. That means no topical monologues, no characters, no skits or Top 10 lists… Of course, much may depend on what the definition of “writing” is. Does Leno have to ad-lib every joke in his 10-minute monologue to remain within the rules? Would scribbling a few prompts on a cue card constitute “writing”? Would Stephen Colbert’s “The Word” segment be kosher if he just riffed on a word at random?…

The shows are also likely to be missing another staple — glamorous, big-name celebrities pushing their latest movies and TV shows. Members of the Screen Actors Guild have pledged solidarity with the writers and are likely to boycott the shows.

A commenter on the issue at Truthdig has suggested that Stewart and Colbert have striking writers as their guests. My friend Bonnie thinks the hosts should just sit there staring silently into the camera to emphasize the importance of writers.

I think, hell, why stop there? Why even bother going back to TV? Half of the people who watch The Daily Show and The Colbert Report do so on the Internet anyway… so why not cut out the middleman?

Seriously, why shouldn’t shows like these just go right to the Internet? A new union — let’s call it the Writers’ Guild of the Internet — can cover it, with fair profit sharing for everyone.

Of course there would be all sorts of legalities involved with making the break with the corporations who have their greedy fingers in these pots at the moment. But there comes a point at which you have to say that the rules and the laws are unjust, and are no longer serving their purpose. Thomas Jefferson and John Adams didn’t worry too much about the legality of declaring independence from England — maybe it’s going to take something as dramatic to get us out from under the boot of unfair corporate rule, too.

Who better to get us started that Jon Stewart and Stephen Colbert?

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  • PaulW

    All I can say is, the studios won’t settle the strike as long as they are still making money.

    We need to stop going to the movie theaters. And we need to let the theater owners know why.

    We need to stop buying dvds. And we need to let Wal-Mart and the other retailers know why.

    We need to call and email advertisers on the networks to let them know viewers side with the writers and that until the strike is settling to the benefit of the writers we the consumers will not buy their products.

    Hit the studio greedheads where it hurts. Their wallets.

    Viva Liberace! or something to that effect.

  • MaryAnn

    I agree, Paul. Unfortunately, most consumers of filmed entertainment probably aren’t even aware that a strike is on, never mind trying to get them on the side of the angels.

  • bitchen frizzy

    There isn’t a tenth the money in the internet as there is in TV. There wouldn’t be much profit to share.

    IOW, Paul W., the union doesn’t have sufficient leverage to harm studios’ profits. A strike is generally ineffective in that circumstance.

    Why do they lack leverage? That’s a valid question that’s always sidestepped by champions of their cause.

    Most consumers are aware of the strike, though they don’t give it much thought. I don’t think they care much, and they don’t really understand why they should care.

  • MaryAnn

    There isn’t a tenth the money in the internet as there is in TV. There wouldn’t be much profit to share.

    But most of the profit now goes into corporate coffers. Cut out the corporate fatcats, and the creative people could probably do at least as well as they are now.

    Why do they lack leverage? That’s a valid question that’s always sidestepped by champions of their cause.

    Why do you think the union lacks leverage? And why do you assume that we “champions of their cause” agree that it lacks leverage and hence are avoiding discussing it?

  • bitchen frizzy

    I think the union lacks leverage because they aren’t getting very far in their strike, though maybe it’s too soon to tell. As for why, I was hoping someone closer to the industry could tell me why the strike isn’t having much of an effect on profits.

    Here are my ideas – discuss:
    Oversupply. There are a lot of aspiring screenwriters out there, cranking out a lot more work than can be made into shows, and they are willing to sell their work cheap to get a foot in the door. A few really outstanding writers dominate the talent pool; the rest are replaceable.

    Public indifference to mediocrity. The public perceives most of television programming as crap, and wrongly believes it’s easy to write crap – hence the lack of public support. Also, there’s lots of money to be made in sports programming, reality television, and even reruns; and the public will watch that if that’s all that’s on. A few shows are real gems that both depend on screenwriters and draw a lot of advertising revenue, but most are blah – background noise for people eating dinner or doing laundry.

  • MaryAnn

    You answered your own question about why profits haven’t been affected yet: it’s too soon, the networks are still relying on stuff that’s already in the can. (There’s still plenty of narrative programs to roll out over the next few months: Law & Order, Medium, Lost, Jericho, BSG, etc, that already have lots of episodes completed.)

    But the networks can’t hold out forever. The question is whether the writers can hold out long enough for that moment to come.

  • Moe

    Unfortunately, i get the feeling the studios and networks aren’t gonna feel the real pinch until 2009 movies are jepordized and the fall 2008 tv schedule gets closer and closer.

    That means we might have to wait until mid-summer for the strike to have its full intended financial hit!

  • J.T.

    Unfortunately, most consumers of filmed entertainment probably aren’t even aware that a strike is on, never mind trying to get them on the side of the angels.

    When less than a sixth of the working population is unionized, why would one expect any mass mobilization on the part of the general public?

    But most of the profit now goes into corporate coffers. Cut out the corporate fatcats, and the creative people could probably do at least as well as they are now.

    You would still need financiers, and individual films are a risky business. I’m not sure that most writers would fair much better under such a practice. Of course, if the productions were low budget enough, the writers would be competing with the amateurs on YouTube.

  • bitchen frizzy

    “But the networks can’t hold out forever.”

    Can’t they? That’s the multimillion dollar question.

    Do they need union writers?

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