What’s the question again?

One of my favourite lines in the favourite-line-ful The West Wing is the eventual payoff to a riff of Josh’s throughout “Guns Not Butter.” He keeps quoting a poll that indicated the public are not supportive of foreign aid: “68% think we give too much in foreign aid, and 59% think it should be cut.” Finally, Will gives him the setup he needs:

Will: You like that stat.
Josh: I do.
Will: Why?
Josh: Because 9% think it’s too high and shouldn’t be cut. 9% of respondents could not fully get their arms around the question. There should be another box you can check for “I have utterly no idea what you’re talking about. Please, God, don’t ask for my input.”

Rick Mercer’s Talking to Americans segments and specials, where he gets unsuspecting Americans to congratulate Canadians on moving to the 24 hour clock, for example, prey on the human tendency to not want to look stupid, to play along with and even try to impress the surveyor.

Before Christmas, I fielded a call from Ipsos Reid, the pollsters, and felt a little like Josh’s hypothetical citizen: “Please, God, don’t ask for my input.” But they caught me in a good mood – a mood where I accidentally answered the phone without checking call display – plus I’ve previously relied on Ipsos Reid data for my jobs and figured it was payback time.

The survey centered around the RCMP and the Mulroney/Schreiber situation (non-Canadians, just insert “blah blah blah” here – it’s not important to my little anecdote). Rate my confidence in the RCMP on a scale from 1 to 5? Are we talking those who discourage officers in remote outposts to bring backup, with tragic results? The Taser-happy officers? Or the bulk of the force? Do I think a public inquiry should be held into the Karlheinz Schreiber affair? Yes. Do I think he’s brought forward these allegations only to stay in the country? Yes. There’s no room to explain to the indifferent surveyor how those two opinions aren’t really contradictory, but I wonder what use the data will be without an explanation, without knowing how little I actually care about Karlheinz Schreiber.

There’s the real truth of most public surveys. Most people don’t care about most things, but most of us have an opinion when pressed.

And that brings us back to TV, of course. The Writers Guild and the producers they’re on strike against, the AMPTP, have both hired high-powered PR firms as the strike enters its “never gonna end” phase. The WGA touts the fact that surveys show the public supports their side, such as a recent Gallup poll shows 60% support. The AMPTP counters that with a survey that shows almost 2/3 don’t have a side in the strike and that 74% of respondents haven’t changed their viewing habits because of the strike (but … we’ve only just started seeing the effects on our screens).

In my circle of acquaintances, other than those who write for TV, no one cares about the strike. They care when their favourite shows will return, but they barely care what the strike’s about, never mind who should get what. This will make some people shudder, but a few friends have asked me to explain (hey, when I worked at the cancer society they’d come to me with questions about their loved one’s diagnosis – at least with writers strike questions I can answer the basics). When they understand the residuals issue, they think the writers should get what they want. I steer clear of the rest of the issues because they are less easily digestible. I’m still chewing on them.

But they don’t really care. And they shouldn’t have to. The strike won’t be resolved based on public opinion anyway, but with nuclear weapons in unstable Pakistan and genocide in Darfur and homeless people in downtown Vancouver, not to mention job-related difficulties in every family and circle of friends, demanding that a member of the public care whether American TV writers have secure futures is a bit much.

Though it was apparently deplorable for Ellen DeGeneres and Carson Daly to return to work without their writers, now that Jon Stewart, Stephen Colbert, Conan O’Brien and Jay Leno are joining them this is apparently a great opportunity to have them speak out against their corporate overlords on air, and bring the writers’ position to the public. David Letterman and Craig Ferguson are also returning, but with a WGA agreement and with their writers.

I love Dave for old times’ sake, and love Stewart and Colbert when I catch them in daytime reruns, though I’m not much for late night TV anymore. I’ll watch the first couple of episodes to see what format the Daily Show and Colbert Report use without writers, and what Dave makes of his advantage. But they’re going to have to walk a fine line. Hammer too much on the writers strike, they’ll not only piss off their bosses, they’ll bore their audience. Don’t hammer on it enough, and they’ll be temporary pariahs in a community that, to judge by Deadline Hollywood Daily comments, sees the world in black and white, supporter of everything the WGA says and does or paid AMPTP shill.

Here’s hoping the returning late night hosts can make strike jokes about such a head-up-our-own-asses subject entertaining, without having their audience echo Josh Lyman’s “I have utterly no idea what you’re talking about” sentiment. I have faith, but that’s based on the feeling they won’t be the strident on-air advocates some WGA members are hoping for.

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