Tuesday, July 15, 2008

Rethinking Reality

A few years ago I started growing concerned over what the rise in unscripted reality programming -- which the Guild does not cover -- would do to our ability to wage a strike, if we ever really needed one. The networks could load up on non-WGA programming and do just fine.

So I was very receptive to Patric Verrone’s argument when he ran for WGA President on the need to organize those shows, likening us to a toothless dog: “We can growl and bark but, when the time comes to strike, our bite is almost meaningless.” I was convinced that, for that reason alone, it was critical for us to get those shows covered.

Of course, there was another reason to get those shows covered, too: it was the right thing to do. To the extent that these shows are written -- though precisely what work ought to be considered writing is much debated, and maybe subject for another post -- these writers deserve to share in the things our Guild has fought for and won over the last 75 years, like decent minimums and health insurance and a pension plan.

But mostly our Guild spent 2005-07 focused on organizing reality as a means to an end, to reinvigorate our strike threat.

Of course, this would be an uphill battle by definition. By broadcasting the goal of organizing reality so that we could increase our strike threat -- basically telling management, “We want you to give us your gun, so we can shoot you” -- we disincentivized them even further from doing right by reality writers. Yet our new leadership believed we could win the day anyway, through the magic new weapon of “corporate campaigns” -- guerrilla-style tactics which had in some instances proved effective for unions in other industries.

Three years in, it’s fair to say that they haven’t done much for us. And our reality organizing campaign has had more misses than hits, most infamously the suicide run of the AMERICA’S NEXT TOP MODEL strike, which ended with all those writers losing their jobs for good.

So we went into our strike without having regained that hammerlock over prime time network programming which Patric Verrone and David Young -- and I -- had believed essential.

Here’s the thing, though:

We were wrong. We're not a toothless dog.

What none of us were taking into account was that a writers strike was never going to be about the imposition of sudden economic impact on the conglomerates, but rather about a long war of attrition -- in other words, which side could hold together longer. What would divide us, and what would divide them?

Toward that end, as the strike dragged on for more months than we’d anticipated, we started offering interim deals -- waivers, really -- to certain companies and not others, in hopes of sowing dissent on their side.

Little had we realized, reality programming had all along been operating precisely like a strike waiver. It meant that FOX, with lots of reality on their schedule, could withstand the strike more easily, but it also meant that CBS, with little reality and suddenly losing ground to FOX, would be pushing harder internally to make a deal.

So we struck. We stayed together. A deal got made. We got what we needed.

And not having reality turned out not to mean a damned thing.

But what is the Guild focusing on this week? A reality rally in San Francisco, to embarrass AMERICAN IDOL and its production company, Fremantle, into giving us a deal.

As a means to an end, toward reinvigorating our strike threat.

I think we’re off course.

Instead of actually analyzing what we all went through together, and asking what we can learn from that, this leadership is automatically interpreting the painful events of the past year to fit its own original ideology-driven narrative and the composition of its current organizer-heavy staff.

There’s a better play for us right now -- one which stands a much better chance of doing what’s best for the reality writers themselves, while allowing us to move forward and apply our finite resources to things which will help current members. And I’ll get to that in my next post.