Film and TV

Strike Two

Hollywood writers have already begun to return to work, even though the strike isn't officially over—which is a sign of either how much trust exists now that the picketing is done, or how many people realized that they need to delete their stuff (unfinished scripts, novels in progress, porn) off their company-owned desktops.

Everyone seems eager to get back to work, to get tape and film rolling again. And not just because audiences are hungry for anything but more Howie Mandel. It all comes down to money, of course—the money that the writers need to keep up with their mortgage, feed their kids, pay their therapist. That's what the writers were striking for, after all, and for good reason. But it's not just their month-to-month budgets that they're worried for—they're also worried for the state of the industry itself.

As I sit here, writing this, the entertainment and print industries are being assaulted on all sides by a changing world. Everyone knows this, and no one knows exactly what to do about it. In Michael Roberts' More Messages blog thread, there's story after story about defections from The Rocky Mountain News—and this is by no means limited to one of our two Denver newspapers. Scribes are jumping ship everywhere—perhaps in television most of all.

The paradigm of TV is shifting. In the past two decades, we've gone from an advertising-driven Big Three networks to a whole new world: the rise of cable, the production of new (and largely better) programming for pay-channels, the invention of TiVo and all the promise and threat inherent in the new on-demand world. These are things that the old technology cannot bear for long, and everyone in the industry knows it. They've tried to branch out in new ways, to add new rules to the old game—product placement being the latest attempt. But not even that's working. It's like adding the trading-property rule to Monopoly—it makes the game more fun for a little while, but eventually, you have to admit that you're still playing the same game, you're still bored, and you're still a top hat moving in circles.

And money was why the strike happened in the first place. One of the ways in which network TV was keeping its financial head above water was to take advantage of writers in terms of the new revenue sources rising from DVD and digital sales. That was unfair to the writers, sure, and they deserved their cut. Now they have it. And while that loss won't bring the nets to their knees by any means (which is to say: don't blame the writers for what's to come), it affects how long a faltering system can continue.

How long will it be until the whole system gives way? Anyone's guess. The fall was happening anyway, but the strike gave it a push. The full effect of the strike on TV viewership won't be known, really, until later this season or even well into the next, but the effects of the medium's sea change are clarifying rapidly. For now, it's enough for most people to know that LOST is coming back, that Heroes is flying high again, that Gray's Anatomy will once again make you laugh, make you cry, become a part of you.

But as for what's next for television? The old advice still holds: stay tuned. -- Teague Bohlen

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Sean Cronin