Sunday, December 30, 2007

Further Thoughts on the WGA Strike: Avoiding Being Tuned to a Dead Channel

I was interviewed by Lawrence O'Donnell on KCRW National Public Radio's "To The Point" this past Friday about the continuing WGA strike and its impact. This was a return engagement for me - I was interviewed on KCRW's "Which Way L.A." about the strike by Warren Olney at its outset in the beginning of November.

The most significant part of Friday's interview, from my perspective, was an exchange of sorts between me and Shawn Ryan - a member of the WGA negotiating team, and creator, among many other important accomplishments in television, of the critically acclaimed "The Shield".

I said, at the conclusion of my interview, that I thought the television viewers were being hurt the most by this strike, and then the writers themselves.

Shawn Ryan responded, with more than a bit of derision, that, well, of course it's unfortunate that television viewers are being inconvenienced by not being able to see their favorite shows, but obviously writers who are not getting paid during the strike, and need the money to live, are being hurt far more.

Radio - even NPR - being what it is, I never got the chance to respond. But that's what they make blogs for, so here's what I would have said:

First, of course writers are suffering more due to the loss of income during the strike, and the damage that creates. Indeed, one of my main points before and during the strike has been that the writers are hurting themselves more than those they are striking against.

But dollars and cents and the essential things they buy are not the only things of great value being damaged by the strike.

There is also a psychic, cultural damage, that is very different from the sheer economics, but can affect far more people, and have a much longer impact.

Television viewing of scripted shows, like all forms of narrative appreciation, is based on what Samuel Taylor Coleridge called a "willing suspension of disbelief" - we know that what we're seeing is not real, but a part of our mind pretends that it is. This allows us to make the story our own - to care, sometimes deeply, about the story and its characters. We take time out of our busy lives to read the book, go to the movies, watch television.

In the case of television, this process can be especially profound. We become engaged in continuing series, on screens that cost us little or nothing to watch, in our living rooms and bedrooms. When this process clicks, the characters and the stories can become almost essential parts of our lives. This is what the television industry hopes will happen - and, contrary to what many critics of television in the academic world say, I think that's by and large a very good thing. (See my book, The Soft Edge, for more of my championship of television and its benefits.)

This is what is being jeopardized by the strike, and it's more than a mere inconvenience. Although series are not yet being stopped in mid-stream, their relationships with viewers are being seriously disrupted. Lost, which had such a fabulous finale in May, will debut its new season at the end of January - but with only eight episodes. 24, which was supposed to start in January, won't go on at all. Mad Men, which had a superb and pathbreaking first season on AMC, was supposed to start production on season 2 in November - and that's now on hold. And this is just the beginning.

Comparing these jeopardized viewer relationships to writers not receiving income during the strike is obviously comparing apples and oranges.

But a shattering of the bond between television viewer and television may be irreversible - and lead to something which cannot be healed by money - viewers going elsewhere, to non-television screens, for their entertainment.

This in no way lets the television networks and producers off the hook for being so stingy and unfair to writers.

But it means the WGA should think again about how long it will keep the strike going. Writers can convey their arguments to the producers - and the public - without being on strike. Reason can prevail without risking the destruction of the medium that the writers toil so hard to make alive.

"The sky above the port was the color of television, tuned to a dead channel," William Gibson began his 1984 Neuromancer. Let's hope that doesn't describe the future of television...
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