I say it with love. And some eye rolling.

You’re not supposed to point out the flaws in the side you support in a strike. You’re supposed to support the notion that all issues are black and white, and your team wears the right colour hat. In fact, thinking for yourself is frowned on in any contentious situation like war or the “war” of a labour negotiation. But while I support the writers in their regular jobs and in their current strike, I’m not a big fan of their guild.

Hindsight is wonderful, but the WGA’s not-stellar skills were on display in the failed 2006 strike, where they used the America’s Next Top Model writers (or “writers”) to test the waters of organizing reality shows, and then walked away, leaving the writers (or “writers”) without jobs.

Daniel J. Blau, an ex-ANTM story editor, recently wrote an account of the WGA’s feeble Plan A, and no Plan B, for the LA Times. He points out that their failure in 2006 is resulting in their weak position right now:

Had the WGA fulfilled [then-director of organizing, now executive director David] Young’s initial promise to procure guild status for all writers working on reality, animation and nonfiction shows, the networks would shortly have nothing new on the air at all. As it stands, the WGA has pushed its members to walk out on their own jobs, and it has left the networks with powerful leverage — the ability to keep making new TV content.

Should the WGA incorporate reality writers? (I’ll stop with the “writers” – I might not be completely comfortable with that term for what they do, but they do craft the stories.) I don’t know. I don’t care. I only know they tried, badly, and failed, badly, and therefore missed out on the biggest strategic advantage they could have had in their current and future negotiations.

Blau’s article reminded me of two posts I wrote a couple of years ago. In the year or so before the failed strike, the WGA ramped up to it by waging an odd campaign to discredit reality shows. (Wait, did they ever have credit?). They marched against product placement in reality shows at the same time as they had a Reality Organizing Committee with a mandate to expand their membership into the reality show ranks.

They created an Internet campaign, including the Subservient Donald viral site that amounted to nothing more than a sneeze, and a fun but pointless website called Product Invasion, both of which have since been as abandoned as the ANTM story department. The explicit point of that 2005 campaign was to protest product placement in reality shows, which were not and are not under the WGA purview. The hidden point was, of course, something entirely different: setting the stage to organize reality show writers.

A commenter to one of those Blogcritics posts on the subject makes that point explicit, and I have reason to believe it was made by a WGA member:

You’re missing the point of Product Invasion. The producers of reality shows do not recognize the Writers Guild of America. Therefore, the reality writers are unprotected, working 100 hours a week, while the producers are making boatloads of money by (a) not paying union wages and (b) not paying for actors and (c) placing commercials within the episodes of their shows. The Product Invasion campaign is meant to embarrass the advertisers into forcing the producers to sit down and negotiate.

My response:

I understand the point – that’s what the Variety link expands on. But the Product Invasion site is an indirect, dishonest way of making that point. It’s couching the issue in a way that makes it seem like they are protecting the creative integrity of their shows on behalf of the audience. I fully support the writers getting fair union wages, and a bigger piece of the pie. I object to a campaign that pretends to be about one thing when it’s really about another. If they succeed in their negotiations and get a fair deal, will they continue to wage war against product placement? If so, then you and I are both missing the point. If not, then the Product Invasion message is hypocritical – unlike what the text of the site says, the issue all about money, not the undue influence of advertising, or the type of advertising.

I could have been briefer (I could always be briefer). If I were to reply now, two years later, I might just say: The WGA’s point was to organize reality show writers, and if they had succeeded, they would have happily, hypocritically taken the product placement money. Why should I care, then?

The producers’ side of the current strike gives no one any reason for optimism. But looking back on that failed 2005/6 campaign (which, by the way, occurred under the leadership of the current president of the WGA), I find it hard to be optimistic about the WGA either. They might be wearing the white hats in this strike, but they also might be taking a few too many photo ops in them.

There’s too much at stake for this strike to be a flashy PR campaign. So as negotiations continue after the weekend, it can’t hurt to remind both sides that what happens in that room is what’s important, not posturing and pencils.

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2 Responses to I say it with love. And some eye rolling.

  1. jimhenshaw says:

    You make good points, and I wholeheartedly agree on the ridiculous pencil campaign. But I think you’re missing the bigger picture.

    Not all strikes are successful and few achieve all of the aims of the strikers. From those that have evolved into films like “Matewan” and “Harlan County USA” to the situation on America’s Top Model, everybody knows (or should know) going in that it could end badly.

    Because it often does.

    You’re always taking on somebody far more powerful and dispassionate. Corporations are about shareholder value and profits, not the needs of those who work for them either individually or as a group.

    As any expert in Labor relations will tell you, “Strikes only occur when management forces the issue.”

    Would the staff of Top Model have gotten anywhere by wearing T-shirts and buttons around the office as the LA Times article suggests? Maybe, but given the way things played out, it’s just as likely the production could have fired them on the spot as has happened with many just trying to organize a local or even seek some redress without being organized.

    Could the WGA have helped them then? No. Luckily, IATSE was able to use its muscle through the series’ crew to bring some protection to the writers who now work that show.

    Yes, 12 writers still lost their jobs and that’s tragic — but take a moment to consider just how much would such a successful series have to have given up to avoid the production chaos and headaches of restaffing? I would guess it’s much, much less and would barely have been noticable on their bottom line.

    The product placement issue is far more complex but it’s already impacting how shows are written and more importantly their content.

    The truth is that many productions (and not just reality shows) make far more money off working products into their scripts and stories than they can earn from license fees. And that means writers are (and will more often be) asked to help sell those products.

    Maybe that doesn’t seem like a big deal in an industry that already depends on advertising to deliver its programming.

    But there’s a difference between an ad for an anti-depressant running alongside ones for beer and detergent between two acts of “House” and Dr. House recommending its use or suggesting it’s the magic bullet for that week’s disease.

    And don’t believe that couldn’t happen because there’s a good chance it already is.

    Like the internet, if that’s the coming reality, then the issues relating to it need to be addressed.

    Maybe you’re right and writers are just looking for their piece of the action if they’re shilling products. But it’s another revenue stream that depends on the writers’ talents to succeed.

    The writers who don’t mind doing it should be properly rewarded and the writers who have an ethical problem need to be protected.

    And adequate compensation and protection are, unfortunately, often only available to those who are unionized.

  2. Diane Kristine says:

    I think you’re misunderstanding what my objection to the WGA actions ion 05/06 were – they could not have cared less about product placement in reality shows. Why should they? They aen’t “their” shows. “Their” shows, like House, and Medium (an example I’d used in the first Blogcritics link) have blatant product placement. Why was that not their focus, if their main concern was to protect the audience from product placement, or to protect their writers from the ethical dilemmas? Why try to make a splash with the Wall Street march and the Product Invasion/Subservient Donald campaigns centred solely around reality shows? Their only objective there was to bolster their attempts to organize reality show writers. But they didn’t even make a solid attempt at that, which the Blau article demonstrates. It has nothing to do with wearing buttons at the office – it has to do with the predictable failure of having 12 people on strike, with no roll-out to anything bigger, starting with little support from the WGA who orchestrated it in the first place and culminating in complete abandonment. That strike occurred when it did because the *WGA* forced the issue, because they wanted to use them as a test case to get a foothold into the reality show industry.

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