Irony in the TV writers' strike


I have sympathy for the TV writers, because I believe the 3 most important elements of a good TV show are story, story and story. You need more than that, but without them you are toast.

But my reaction is not likely to help them. One of the things they are striking for is to make more money off DVD sales and online delivery of their video. But with The Daily Show off the air, we found ourselves reaching for... other old shows on DVD.

The nasty truth is there may already be enough good TV and movies made to satisfy a lot of the public's TV watching needs, and it's all on DVD, and will all be online. Not that the industry can't produce good new shows that are worth watching -- but how much do we truly need new shows? We seem to have a preference for novelty, it's true. And tastes change, making older shows less palatable. And much older shows have poorer production values. (Though in fact, many older shows were shot on film, and thus can now be delivered in HDTV to provide a superior experience to when they were aired.)

But our taste for novelty is just a taste. We can be quite happy for the duration of a writers' strike satisfying ourselves from the very media they are not being paid enough for. In a better quality format, commercial-free.

This strike grid from the LA Times shows that a lot of shows have plenty of scripts in the can as well. Outside of shows like The Daily Show and Tonight Show, the public isn't even going to notice many shows leaving the air for some time to come. The writers are hoping they can threaten the "pilot" season and thus scare the networks into worrying they will not have new shows for a Fall season. (This need of course is related to the public's demand for novelty.)

Networks can't easily go and put a series from the 80s or 90s on the air as replacement, however. The taste for novelty is quite strong, and too many people will have seen it. This is what DVD/online does better than broadcast. While the odds that you would like to watch Buffy the Vampire Slayer or any other specific but have not seen it (in original airing or syndication) are not that good, given the wide selection of DVD out there, the odds that there is something to meet your needs during the strike are high. This is particularly true for the various pay channel series for those who don't get those channels.

And, especially if you use Netflix or buying and selling used, at a very attractive price.


People have very short attention spans in this era of continual electronic stimulation.
Who was it who said that the crawl at the bottom of the new shows that feed us continuous
bits of information during a show are not making us informed but is creating a society that
has attention deficit order as its baseline? Reality T.V. (an oxymoron, but that's for another
discussion) has made low cost voyeurism and low brow entertainment (people eating bugs and trying not
to vomit)the new standard for making money at the expense of quality shows with quality writing.
Essentially, we're getting the T.V. we deserve as long as we tune in to inferior programs that showcase
bickering and bug eating to get our voyeuristic jollies. How can good writer's compete with this?
The baseball strike also comes to mind. Has the sport ever truly recovered from their strike regardless
of whether it as warranted or not? Truth is, people do have short attention spans. If you take something
away long enough, we all learn to live without it. All you have to do is look at mainstream T.V. to
see that people aren't that picky. Or, as Brad has pointed out, they've gone back to older shows in order
to satisfy the need for quality.

It is a complex equation here. While the studios make money from the DVD sales (and online sales, though that's not a big issue yet) and the writers complain they are not getting a proper share of it, an actual serious depletion of new broadcast shows will affect both sides, and speed up the rewriting of the rules of broadcast TV.

The question is, will this rule rewriting be good for either side, or neither, or both? DVD and online sales will start to disintermediate the networks. The studio will get closer to the customer and get more of the pie. Advertising will start to drop as a source of revenue, which is presumably why the writers feel now is the time to push for a share of what will become the big pie. And we presume the studios and networks know that and that's why they are resisting so hard.

As I've written before, the economics of selling TV are odd, and are in many cases artifacts of the old technology. Just as music is going through a rewriting of its economics, TV is due for one too. With our DVRs we don't see commercials, and we will resist being forced to watch them in our online video, I think. But people don't mind ads, as Google has profitably shown. They mind ads that don't make efficient use of their time.

I have seen figures indicating that the pornography industry in California
is bigger, in financial terms, than the conventional television and film
industries. And it is still going strong. Even though the potential
for novelty is not as great here, new pornographic films are still being
produced and are still making money. With many pornographic films on DVD,
once could easily spend the rest of one's life watching films which have
already been made. Even if one restricts the choice to films of the type
one wants to watch, there is still more than enough. Nevertheless, it is
profitable to make new ones. As long as that is the case, I assume it will
also be the case for conventional television.

With pornography, the quest for novelty seems even stranger than with
conventional films. Why not just watch a pornographic film from the 1970s?
Can it really be that the presence of sideburns on the male actors
(or pubic here on the female actors) is so repulsive to today's tastes?

I'm not saying the market isn't a sucker for new stuff, porn or otherwise. What I am saying is that we (the audience) can happily tolerate a dry spell of new stuff for quite some time without feeling we're out of good things to watch.

Though I must admit that the idea of a porn writer's strike made me feel quite amused!

Novelty is important to broadcast TV and big marketing. If you're going to spend a lot of money on marketing, and put a show in a scarce broadcast time slot, it's important that you're marketing to everybody, because nobody has seen it. You don't want to market a re-run, because so much of your marketing money is wasted on people who have already seen it, or already decided they don't plan to see it. But the long-tail distribution methods work differently.

I can understand that the writers want to correct the mistake
that they made 25 years ago. But in the big picture they're
chasing after a slice of a disappearing pie.

The broadcast networks and the cable channels are all dead
men walking. It's matter of when, not if. The current
television model is based on a scarcity of the past, one
that is currently maintained artificially. Shennanigans
on the part of the telecom companies will delay things,
but eventually it will be obvious to everyone that the
necessary resouces are abundant.

Soon people will have a pipe delivering tens or even hundreds
of Mbs to their home. If I want to watch "Wild Rutabagas",
why do I need purchase a tier that includes The Root Vegetable
Channel and wait until Thursday at 8pm? Why do I need a
television service at all? I can have Wild Rutabagas streamed
to my home entertainment processor directly from its producer's
server whenever I want. How this will be underwritten by
sponsors and advertisers will need to be worked out.

One consequence will be rise of niche programming. The so-called
mainstream will evaporate. Mass media stars will be almost
non-existant. It won't be possible to manufacture them anymore.
Pop queens and boy bands might actually have to have talent to
become famous.

They may be crude compared to what we'll have in ten years,
but Youtube and lonelygirl15 point the way to the future.
Writers will be dealing directly with producers, advertisers,
and maybe even consumers at that point. Any deal they make
now with existing broadcasters will be moot.

Though there are economies of scale in bundling. Let's say you have a customer who would only buy three different series if you could buy series a la carte. It may make sense to give her 50 series -- all the series the seller has to offer perhaps -- for the same price. That's because once you decide you are only going to sell 3, it doesn't cost you much more to provide them all. And people like choice enough that they will often put a higher value on the package of 50 even if they only want 3. Indeed, they may well watch more than 3 if they get it, which could be a good or bad thing.

It certainly is more competitive. Now, is saying, "You can have all of them for the price of 3" an example of "forcing" you to buy a bunch of stuff you don't want? If it is priced the same as 3 a la carte, then no. For somebody who only wants 1 or 2 series, it is, but not nearly as much as it seems. For somebody who wants 4 or more it's actually a bargain.

Because selling it is easier, the market tends to like plans like this. However, on the net, single channels are not locked out, but they will never be able to match the meaningless "per channel" price of bundles. And people pay for channels the don't really want or barely want. Would I pay for Fox News? No. Do I watch it sometimes to see what sort of news they report? Yes. So would I find a package of all the news channels more attractive than a slightly cheaper package with just the channel I want? Quite possibly.

Add new comment