Unsettling Times

There is no business like show business, and as of Nov. 5, when the Writers Guild of America went on strike against the studios and networks, there has been virtually no business at all. The strike affects not only some of the 12,000 WGA writers actually making a living at their craft. It also affects camera operators and caterers and truck drivers and hair stylists and so many others.

California Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger, who made millions making movies, last week observed, “The people who suffer the most with a strike are the people suffering from living with very little money…The electricians, the grips, the set designers are the people who are going to suffer because they are not getting paid and they are out of work.”

But make no mistake about it: The union is fighting the networks and studios for millions of dollars. The writers want to make sure they are adequately compensated for the secondary use of their television work on Internet sites and other new media. The industry argues that their forays into the wild blue digital yonder are so new that there is precious little revenue to be shared at this point. The WGA, it seems to us, just doesn't believe them. Thus, a strike, pickets, and mean words from both sides.

Former Disney co-CEO Michael Eisner called the strikers “stupid.” Then there was News Corp.'s Peter Chernin's cheery conclusion that the strike would “probably be a positive for the company” since Fox has a lot of its scripted shows in the can, enough to take it to midseason and beyond, where American Idol could be an even bigger hit against a backdrop of repeats from the competition.

We understand that Chernin wants to put the best face on it he can, and Fox is in a better position than most. And while the bottom line is the bottom line, Chernin could have been more diplomatic. Strikes have a way of making management and labor say things that still sting long after the strike is over.

Strikes bring out all those raw, vengeful passions. Shawn Ryan, the showrunner for The Shield and The Unit, is one of those people who is some combination of writer and producer, and caught in an awkward position. He vowed in an open letter that during the strike, “the only thing I can do as a showrunner is to do nothing. I obviously will not write on my shows. But I also will not edit, I will not cast, I will not look at location photos, I will not get on the phone with the network and studio, I will not prep directors, I will not review mixes…I truly believe that the best and fastest way to a good contract is to hit these companies early, to hit them hard and to deprive them of all the work we do on their behalf.”

We don't like any of those sound bites. We don't like seeing talented men and women picketing. We're bothered by how many others are affected by a strike that, rationally, could be settled if both sides cooperated. We keep hearing that this will be a long strike. We keep hoping we're not hearing right.