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Strikes Loom, the Plot Thickens

April 08, 2001

FADE IN ON: A typical American family in a typical family room in a typical state watching TV, laughing every three sentences at a typical sitcom. Outside, it's summer, a typical dark and stormy night. Lightning flashes. Without warning, the TV goes black. Stunned family members look around. Dad: "What's going on?" He aims the remote. All network channels are gone. The phone rings. It's the cable company. There's a strike by writers and actors. Soon, regular programs will be replaced by reruns, arcane sports and "reality shows," those carefully unscripted displays of shamelessness by nonprofessionals who would like to become professionals. By Christmas 2002 there might be fewer new movies at the mall.

The typical family is shocked. They knew that airline pilots and flight attendants were threatening slowdowns, which are hard to discern from delays. But they were unaware that writers and actors had demanded more money again for work they completed perhaps two years ago while being forced to live in Southern California and eat catered food at work. To this typical American family, a strike by Californians driving rustless cars in the sun is science fiction, though Hollywood strikes could also mean fewer jokes and no actors hawking movies on late-night talk shows.

The doorbell rings. It's FedEx with letters from the Screen Actors Guild and the Writers Guild of America. Yes, the unions know that thousands of workers are being laid off across the country and that plunging stock markets and earnings provide nonfiction fodder for financial channels' own reality TV. But, both argue, public fears of entertainment recession are overblown. Yes, both sides waited until the last minute to truly bargain, but for years actors and writers haven't received their fair share of residual payments when their work is sold overseas or on DVD or videocassette.

The family's desktop computer chirps: "You've got mail!" It's an e-mail from the studios referencing internal figures showing costs soaring even without new guild demands. They say audiences are being splintered by multiplying entertainment opportunities. It seems many viewers, for instance, watch Animal Channel's hand-held coverage of a vet's emergency room as readily as something that took special police permits and two blocks of street parking to film.

The doorbell again. It's the new mayor of Los Angeles. The mayor explains that the entertainment industry injects $31 billion into L.A.'s economy annually, employing a quarter-million people directly and more than 200,000 others in related work. That's 10% of the workers in the nation's most populous county. Puzzled, the typical family eats dinner together, talking and listening to each other for the first time in many sweeps periods. Then, suddenly, somewhere a cell phone rings. Freeze frame. TO BE CONTINUED?

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