March 5, 2008: Perspective
By Jay Katsir ’04
Jay Katsir ’04 is a writer for The Colbert Report.
By the time you’re reading this article, it is very possible that the strike of the Writers Guild of America (WGA) against the Alliance of Motion Picture and Television Producers (AMPTP) will be settled. Media moguls will have returned to their rhino-skin hoverjacuzzis, where they may bathe in sparkling Cashmere goat’s milk unmolested. Television and screenwriters will be back on the job, conjuring the singular magic that transmutes an idea to an image to a toy in a Burger King Kids Meal. Hollywood will be at peace, and our country will not be forced to go without a sequel to Beowulf featuring Robin Williams in the role of a zany Jute.
But at the time of this writing, I am sitting at home in sweatpants and a T-shirt I got at a bar mitzvah. In other words, even though I am technically on strike, I am still honoring my office’s dress code.
For those unfamiliar with the WGA strike and the issues that precipitated it, here is a timeline:
1988: After a prolonged strike, the Writers Guild agrees to a “discount” residual on the sale of home video (eventually, DVDs) so that production companies may devote more funds to “growing” the market. Residuals, akin to the royalties an author makes on sales of a book, are key to many writers’ financial survival in a fickle industry. No doubt with this in mind, writers settle for the following residual structure: For every $20 home video purchased, the producers will chuckle and rub their bare bellies with doubloons.
1989: Reality TV — cheaply produced, nonunion programming that is written or shaped by staff credited as “story editors” so as to avoid appearing scripted — gains traction with the success of Cops. The traction is the result of Cops occupying FOX’s 4:30, 7:30, 8:00, 8:30, 9:00, and 11:30 timeslots.
1991: Do the Urkel!
Nov. 4, 2007: Contract negotiations between the WGA and the AMPTP break down over the writers’ desire to be compensated for material distributed over the Internet, which one day likely will unite television and home movies in a single digital appliance that can more efficiently keep you from talking to your family. Anticipating this, production companies ask for time to complete a multiyear study investigating the Internet’s profit potential before renegotiating. The study is expected to focus on whether the cabin of the NBC CEO’s jet can be outfitted with a Slip ’n Slide composed of soapy gold bars.
Nov. 5, 2007: WGA members walk off their jobs and onto the picket lines. After a few hours exposed to the elements, half the Guild’s membership falls prey to the galloping consumption.
Nov. 8, 2007: Celebrity Picket Day! Luminaries such as Susan Sarandon, Julianne Moore, and the casts of all 49 Law and Order programs join the writers on the line in New York City to show their solidarity. I briefly march next to Tim Robbins, mutter something that he cannot hear, and later claim to my friends that I talked to him.
Mid-November, 2007: WGA writers attempt to bring attention to their cause by producing short videos for dissemination on YouTube. User comments posted below the videos range from hostile to apocalyptically hostile. All commenters additionally express their intent to vote for Ron Paul.
Early December, 2007: After the intervention of state and local government, the AMPTP agrees to return to the bargaining table. It continues to insist that a television program streamed on the Internet is a “promotion” rather than a rerun, so the writers should not be compensated for it. The WGA continues to seek 2.5 percent of new media revenue. After several days of tense negotiation, the AMPTP unveils its final offer: For every television episode or movie downloaded, the writers will receive a ha’penny and a brisk shillelagh clout.
Mid-December, 2007: Writers’ sustained circular trudging somehow fails to convince the AMPTP to resume negotiations. Perhaps we should try counterclockwise.
Dec. 24, 2007: After retiring to his bedchamber, Walt Disney’s CEO is visited by the ghost of Jacob Marley. He invites Marley to appear on ABC’s new primetime reality program, Clash of the Victorian Ghosts.
Jan. 17, 2008: The AMPTP reaches a tentative agreement with the Directors Guild of America, whose contract is also due to expire. Though weak on Internet issues, the deal spurs hope that a settlement with the WGA may be within reach. I consider scrapping my Outback Steakhouse application. After all, if I go back to work, I probably won’t need the free Bloomin’ Onions.
Late January, 2008: I write this article. While doing so, I inadvertently break the strike rules. It turns out that Princeton Alumni Weekly is in fact a holding of Rupert Murdoch’s News Corp., an AMPTP signatory for which I am forbidden to perform services. This explains why the Class Notes section contains so much positive news about Republicans.
So that’s the story of the labor movement. But what about the individual laborers, their hands callused from Guitar Hero frets and their muscles straining against their Battlestar Galactica shirts? Many people have asked me, “What have you been doing during the strike?” Well, in the early days, when the pickets, strategy meetings, and opportunities to hear comedian Gilbert Gottfried yelp nasally through a bullhorn were frequent, I had quite a busy socialist social calendar. But after the “holiday” break, when it became clear that the strike would last, I had to come up with a long-term survival strategy. If I wasn’t going to be at work, I would at least create a businesslike atmosphere around my apartment. I now wake up at the semirealistic hour of 9 a.m., so that I have an entire day to sit in front of my computer, organize my materials, and devise ways to answer the question, “What have you been doing during the strike?”
As difficult as this experience has been, I have no regrets about joining the union. Guild membership provides things that nonunion writing work cannot guarantee: health insurance, a pension, a nice wool hat. I just hope the strike ends soon. As of this writing, it has dragged into its third month, and I find myself becoming radicalized. At first, I was content to settle for what I believe are the Guild’s reasonable goals. But now, as I sit here eating Count Chocula directly out of the box, I think of the strike as the opening volley in a worldwide workers’ revolution, spread continent by continent, until the studio heads are forced to relinquish the means of production, and movies and television pilots are green-lit not by midlevel executives but by ideologically pure writers’ soviets. And I’d get to ride a motorcycle with Che Guevara.
But the main reason I hope the strike ends soon is that I miss my job very much. It was my professional duty to sit in a room and write jokes. I got to work with many talented people. It was so like a pleasant dream that the current state of affairs seems to be the sudden waking that was inevitable all along. It’s exactly how I felt the time I fell asleep on the sidewalk during one of the pickets. Luckily, Gilbert Gottfried had a bullhorn.