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Political Animal

No Money, No Funny

By Brian Morton | Posted 11/14/2007

It serves as only part of the bitter irony of the American entertainment history that the man who began the modern-day assault on the union movement served as the president of a union for six years and to this day is the only president who was ever a union member.

Ronald Reagan is quite likely the paternal grandfather to the corporations trying to break the Writers Guild of America in its members' quest to be remunerated for the work they do that gets ported to new media. Of course, Reagan was the president who broke the air traffic controllers' strike in August 1981, after his transportation secretary had trained replacements secretly ready to take over--this after both the controllers' union and the Teamsters endorsed Reagan over Jimmy Carter in 1980. Considering that Reagan, while head of the Screen Actors Guild, was also a squealer to the FBI during the House Un-American Activities Committee, it only adds that much more grim irony in an era when Hollywood is constantly being tarred, by blow-hards like Bill O'Reilly, as a hotbed of liberal sympathizers and pro-terrorist effetes.

Normally, strikes are over the simple things that have been fought over for almost a century: time, wages, and benefits. But in the entertainment industry (think of the baseball strikes), the issues are not always as clear to the consumer as they are in the case of the truck driver, the factory worker, or the prison guard. And it is always in the interest of the corporate fathers to make sure that the strikers are looked upon as poorly as possible--something relatively easy to do in a world where most of the media is owned by barely a handful of companies.

Responding to snide coverage of the strike in The New York Times--a recent news article on the strike pointed out that "instead of hard hats and work boots, those on the barricades wore arty glasses and fancy scarves"--Joss Whedon, the creative mastermind behind Buffy the Vampire Slayer, Angel, and Firefly, slammed that characterization in a blog post.

"[T]his is exactly the problem," Whedon wrote. "The easiest tactic is for people to paint writers as namby pamby arty scarfy posers, because it's what most people think even when we're not striking. Writing is largely not considered work. Art in general is not considered work. Work is a thing you physically labor at, or at the very least, hate. Art is fun. (And Hollywood writers are overpaid, scarf-wearing dainties.) It's an easy argument to make. And a hard one to dispute."

But in the new millennia, when the Bush presidency has driven the national debt to new skyrocketing heights, when China owns a mortgage to our future, and when it takes $1.10 to buy one Canadian dollar, there may not be much the United States creates anymore except intellectual product. The backbone of that intellectual product is the entertainment industry, and people all around the world are buying it up by the pallet. That is, when they're not pirating it they way they do in China.

And the way of the future isn't television anymore, or even cable for that matter. It's the internet. And the companies that have done business the same way for decades now want to change the rules.

Think of it this way--if you've ever watched a snippet of Comedy Central's The Daily Show online, you know that before you watch any of it, you have to watch an ad. So the studio is making money off that--but not the writers, who don't see a dime. When a show airs on regular television, the writers get paid. When it airs in reruns, the writers get paid a residual, which is less, but they still get paid. But right now, when it airs on the net, or on your phone, or heaven forbid in the future, they beam it right into your skull, the writers get bupkis. And the studios like it that way. In essence, that's what we're talking about.

Like the baseball players said, no one ever went to the game to see an owner. Nobody ever watches Desperate Housewives or Heroes or Lost to see some suit take a piece of the real action, and that action is created by the writers. The studios created the garbage that is "reality TV" in order to get around writers, even though, when you listen to the participants later on, it's clear that "writers" juiced the storylines at every stage of the game. From Dancing With the Stars to Survivor, the fix has been in.

Last week on the picket lines, the writers for the late-night talk shows in Manhattan chanted "No money, no funny" as they walked carrying their signs. If you can't muster up any sympathy for the Writers Guild, then perhaps you deserve to watch The Biggest Loser. There's your irony for you.

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