Wednesday, November 14, 2007

TV Nation, Part 2

Last week, I took a cursory look at a more devil's advocate side of the WGA strike that is roiling the schlock merchants of Hollywood. Kung Fu Monkey's John Rogers, an actual writer and a good one, brings some well-reasoned and much-needed insider's perspective to the proceedings:

Listen, before you spout off the usual "The free market will out" along with "Hey, I'm smart enough to negotiate my own contracts, why aren't you?" with a side order of "just go somewhere else if you don't like it", you need to understand some things. If you don't, then every argument you make is without merit. Period. It's like trying to discuss the Middle East without the fundamental understanding of the difference between Shia and Sunni.

There is no free market in Hollywood. In television for example, with the dissolution of "finsyn" rules in 1995 almost every independent producer has been either absorbed into one of the big media companies or dissolved. We've gone from 40 producers in television to the big Six.

Six. Six companies control almost all mass media in America. They control all, and I mean all, the standard distribution channels in America. They are also negotiating as a single entity, the AMPTP. If you've read your Adam Smith, you know that this is actually one of the situations he notes in Wealth of Nations which will indeed break the fingers of the invisible hand.


This is where I'm always amused at libertarians, because they so love markets but never seem to understand how business actually works. If you, my fine libertarian friend, decide to forego the union and negotiate your own contract vis a vis residuals (or pretty much anything else), you will find that unless you are one of the maybe eight out of 12,0000 most famous and profitable writers in Hollywood, you will get exactly the same deal from each studio, or slightly worse. Because what possible motivation would they have to share their profits, relative to each of the other five competitors? That's just common sense.

Indeed. The vertical integration of the media conglomerates, the incestuous subsuming and cross-promoting of each other's entities and doo-dads, is the corporate smoke blown out the ass of the people's airwaves. And if the execs can shave a couple points here and there and get their incompetent nephew a gofer credit at someone else's expense, well, if you don't like it there's thirty other people who'll blow Harvey Weinstein in a Sunset Strip phone booth for the opportunity.

Read the whole thing, it's pretty excellent. These studio weasels are shameless; they'll try to fuck anything that stops moving long enough, whether you're the newest schmuck off the bus or Peter Jackson. I still agree with Fake Steve that the content producers (the writers) would be doing themselves an enormous favor by getting a jump on the new model.

Look, I get why writers for well-crafted ensembles such as 30 Rock or The Office, or any of the nightly talk shows, would try to hold their ground and protect their nut. But if you're a fuckin' reality hack, what do you have to lose, really, except that sense of embarrassment that follows you around like a brown cloud. "What do you do for a living?" "I'm a writer for Dancing with the Stars." It's like recording wocka-wocka vamps for porn channels and telling everyone you're a "musician".

Anyway, Rogers' basic point rings true -- it's a business run by unethical, nepotistic sharks, and the little fish need whatever protection they can get. And of course the corporations are in a much better negotiating position -- they've got shows in the can, and they can ride this out for longer.

But it could also be the signal of a shift, a potential disintermediation of one or even both sides. People have a lot of alternatives, and the proliferation of cheap-ass copycat shows indicates that they're looking for knuckle-shuffle distractions over entertainment they give a shit about. This is particularly true for their money demo, who have X-boxes, iPhones, and all sorts of shit to channel their ADHD spans into. It's very self-defeating, it seems.

Of course, I don't have enough profound knowledge about what makes the business or its customers tick; I have no fucking clue how movies such as Fred Claus or Transformers even get made, much less who over the age of seven watches them. Marketing is not my strong suit.

But I can spot a trend from time to time, and this one seems ripe for the running. It's another hollowed-out dinosaur production-revenue model, accelerating its own change, and probably substantial loss of market share.


Paul F. said...

My friend is a cartoon animator for Disney and he got caught up in this crap because the animators have to join the Writer's Guild for some reason. Now he's barely making ends meet.

RonB said...

Hoo boy, Heywood, try walking a mile in my shoes as a soldier. EVERY ONE OF THEM saw Transformers, including mid career NCOs.

I was the weirdo in the office that week. This happens, um, always.

Heywood J. said...

Paul, that's a definite downside of unions, when people in ancillary unions get rolled into something that doesn't directly benefit. I can see where someone working in that industry just says "screw it" and works on some shit reality show while they try to polish their CSI spec script.

Heywood J. said...

Ron, I got the same thing from a couple friends (both late thirties; neither has any military service) recently, which just confused the hell out of me. One went on and on about it, and how cool it was, and how the makers supposedly got hate mail for tweaking a few details here and there (not sure on specifics, don't give a shit).

Anyway, he finally stops and asks me what I thought of the movie, and trying to be somewhat polite, said, "I haven't seen it". "Well, why not?", he says, incredulous bordering on belligerent.

"Because I'm not fucking twelve years old, dude. Because I would have thought it was a dumb concept when I was twelve years old. Because I work 10 hours a day plus a 90-minute commute, and am never going to have the time to spend two hours of my life watching cars turn into fuckin' robots. You know? Same reason I'm never going to see Dancing with the Stars."

I mean, I watch a lot of movies and a fair amount of TV, and really am not a culture snob, I swear, but Jesus Christ.